1. COLLEGE FOOTBALL Southern Miss battling for respect
Golden Eagles rebuilding under Monken after 23-game losing streak ended in 2013
By Bret Bloomquistbbloomquist@elpasotimes.com
@bretbloomquist on Twitter
The last time Southern Miss came to El Paso in 2011, the Golden Eagles were at their zenith.
One of the proudest mid-majors in all of the FBS, they routed the Miners and a month later shocked unbeaten Houston in the Conference USA title game.
The last time USM and UTEP played in 2012, the Golden Eagles were at their nadir. When the Miners stopped a two-point conversion with 2:48 left, USM absorbed loss number 12 in a stretch where it lost 23 straight games and had three coaches in 14 months.
The Southern Miss team that comes to Sun Bowl Stadium on Saturday is somewhere in between. The rebuilding is coming along, the 3-5 record a bit deceptive since it includes losses to No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 3 Alabama.
The Eagles aren’t where they want to be yet but they are a big step up from where they were. They currently reside in that large swath of the CUSA behind Marshall where just about a nyone can beat anyone. T hat’s definite progress. “ We’ve been m a k i n g play s without a lot of errors,” said Michael Thomas, the leader of a deep receiving corps. “We came up short a couple of games but we’re still improving.
“Each week there are things we have to improve, things we have to work on. Hopefully we’re about to put it all together — the offensive line, the receivers, the defensive line has been improving. We’re a lot better than last year.” If Southern Miss can point to the moment the tailspin ended, it was the final game of 2013 when, after losing 23 straight regular season games and on the verge of a second consecutive losing season, they stunned UAB for their first victory since that ’11 upset of Houston.
“I think that the energy that came from that, singing the fight song, reaping the rewards for your work, I think that starts it,” coach Todd Monken said afterward. “ ‘Wow! That is what it feels like.’ “That helped us a lot, it gave us confidence,” Thomas said. “We kept that positive mindset. We try not to think negatively and keep a positive vibe.”
Monken, a former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator, was finishing up his first year after taking over from Ellis John
who was fired after one 0-12 season in ’12. He was hired after Larry Fedora bolted for North Carolina after his team won C-USA.
W hen Monken talks about his team, he sounds a lot like UTEP’s Sean Kugler. The Eagles clearly have a ways to go to replenish the talent, but he likes the energy and passion of his team.
Even after his the Eagles lost to Louisiana Tech 31-20 last week, he saw that positive attitude when they reported on Sunday.
“Our team spirit was really good,” Monken said. “Our guys came out with the approach of, ‘Okay, here is how we have to get better’ and have a better Sunday than UTEP has and move on down the road — control what we can control, which is this coming week.
“Our team really responded well to that.”
The immediate challenge, other than UTEP, is sorting out its quarterback situation. Sophomore starter Nick Mullens is still fifth in C-USA at 243.8 yards per game despite getting injured on the first series against Louisiana Tech and not returning.
Southern Miss isn’t showing all its cards, but he seems questionable at best, which would open the door for senior Cole Weeks.
Weeks threw for 338 yards last week in relief in what was his first significant playing time at the collegiate level but did have two interceptions.
“Cole gave us a chance to win,” Monken said. “There was nothing that he did (wrong) Saturday from a throwing standpoint.
“Obviously when a quarterback gets 30 percent of the reps during the week at most like he did, you are going to have situations in the game where he didn’t get us in the right check or lined up properly, little things that to the naked eye you wouldn’t notice. Those are things because he hadn’t repped.”
G et t in g produc t ion from the quarterback and a talented receiving corps is vital because Southern Miss’ tailback committee is averaging just 89.5 yards per game and had minus-31 against Louisiana Tech.
“Saturday you end up with 76 yards lost rushing,” Monken said (there were 45 positive rush yards for the minus-31). “That was bad snaps and loss yardage plays. We didn’t run it tremendously.
“Some of that was our scheme. Some of that was our backs. Some of it was situation of the game.”
That’s an area where Southern Miss is steadily trying to improve. There are a lot of those areas, but also a lot of areas where they are markedly better than they have been.
They’ll meet another team making big rebuilding steps Saturday in the Sun Bowl. Bret Bloomquist may be reached at 546-6359.