Southern Miss (8-4) vs. Louisville (6-6)
Tuesday, December 21st, 8:00 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By John Agovino, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: For the ninth straight season Southern Miss is making a postseason appearance, as the Golden Eagles will collide with the Louisville Cardinals on December 21st in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Golden Eagles might have racked up eight wins this season, which is clearly good enough for a bowl game, but their year began and ended the same way, with a loss. After falling to South Carolina in their opener, the Golden Eagles responded with four straight wins. The following three-game stretch saw the team drop two contests to East Carolina and UAB, and both setbacks came by a one-point margin. With the loss to the Blazers in the rearview mirror, the Golden Eagles exited the loss column, and racked up three consecutive wins. However, the regular season closed out with a 56-50 loss to Tulsa.
The Golden Eagles are no strangers to playing in bowls, having made a postseason showing in 12 of the last 13 years, including eight straight seasons. Last year Southern Mississippi fell to Middle Tennessee, 42-32, in the New Orleans Bowl. The Golden Eagles are 7-5 in bowl action during their recent stretch, but overall in the program's history, Southern Miss is just 9-11. Despite the recent run, coach Larry Fedora remains humble.
"We are extremely excited about the opportunity to play in St. Petersburg in Florida," said coach Fedora. "It is a great area with great weather and we have the opportunity to play a quality opponent from the Big East. We are thrilled about being able to play another game."
The last time the Cardinals went "bowling" they defeated Wake Forest in the 2007 FedEx Orange Bowl. Louisville, which is 6-7-1 all-time in bowl games, will be making its 15 appearance in postseason play, but it will be the first for Charlie Strong as a head coach.
"For us to go get a bid to play in the bowl game was really big for the program because we needed that for the confidence of this program. Anytime you change a staff, you want something good to happen. We talked about getting this program to a bowl game and then make this program better each year from there."
Strong, who came from the coaching staff of Urban Meyer at Florida, did not have an overly impressive inaugural season, but still claimed Co-Coach of the Year honors in the Big East along with Connecticut's Randy Edsall. Louisville claimed wins in four of its first seven matchups and the three losses all came by eight or less points. Sitting at 4-3 the Cardinals proceeded to suffer losses in three of their next four games, and the lone win was a slim, 28-20 decision on the road against Syracuse. Fortunately, coach Strong's squad was able to go on the road in the season-finale and properly handle Rutgers to the tune of 40-13, giving the team the six wins needed to become bowl eligible.
The Golden Eagles currently own an 18-9-1 edge over Louisville in the all-time series, but the Cardinals have won the last four meetings, including a 25-23 decision last year thanks to a last minute field goal.
Ask any coach at any level of football and they will be the first to explain how having a balanced attack is the key to any successful offense. Having the ability to run and pass, keeps defenses guessing, and gives defensive coordinators fits. Coach Fedora can rest easy at night knowing his offense is very potent on the ground and through the air.
Taking care of the passing attack is Austin Davis, who was selected to the All Conference-USA Second Team. Davis completed over 60 percent of his throws this season, and racked up the yardage, averaging 241.5 ypg. He has thrown for 18 touchdowns, but more importantly, the veteran gunslinger does not make many mistakes, tossing just six interceptions. Kelvin Bolden has hauled in a team- high six touchdowns, but the main target has been Johdrick Morris. Morris, who was the First Team selection at tight end in the league, has collected a team- best 46 receptions for 663 yards.
Clearly Davis is a very effective quarterback, and makes life easy for coach Fedora, but what has kept opposing teams guessing is the ground game, which has dominated the competition for 203.4 ypg. There is not one main option that Southern Miss relies on, which is another advantage for this offense, as it showcases a few different talented backs. Kendrick Hardy has been the most successful, churning out 855 yards and seven scores, while Desmond Johnson, who also has seven touchdowns, has rumbled for 509 yards.
The offense received most of the attention on the season, and rightfully so, but the Southern Miss defense has also played a vital role in the team's success. Sure, on paper this unit is surrendering 29.4 ppg, which is a terrible number, but when peering deeper into the stats, there are plenty of things that make this a dangerous entity.
Opponents might be churning out 113.3 ypg on the ground against the Golden Eagles, but that is not an overwhelming amount, and when combined with the 3.6 yards per carry this front line has held opponents to, it is rather an impressive showing. A big reason for the team's success is the play of defensive linemen Anthony Gray and Cordarro Law. Both were selected to the league's Second Team, and will have their hands full against a tough Louisville ground attack.
Clearly if a team is allowing close to 30 points per matchup there are issues, and in the case of Southern Miss that comes in the defensive backfield. The Golden Eagles has been torched on the year for 248.1 ypg and 26 touchdowns, and the lone reason why both numbers are not higher is because this unit has been fortunate enough to grab 17 interceptions. Four of those interceptions were hauled in by Justin Wilson, who joins Law and Gray on the C-USA'a Second Team roster.
Louisville has the potential on the roster to possess a balanced attack, but that was not the case for the Cardinals, who fell way short of expectations in 2010. A major reason for the team's short-comings was due to injuries to a couple of key players in Bilal Powell and Adam Froman.
Powell only missed one game on the year, but spent most of the season dealing with nagging injures. However, that did not stop the running back from rumbling for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns on 6.3 yards per attempt. As a whole, the ground game for Louisville produced a robust 180.5 ypg, and because of that impressive display the Cardinals were able to either grind out wins, or keep matchups close down the stretch. Powell's success on the season did not go unnoticed, as the powerful back (6-0, 215) earned a spot on the Big East Conference's First Team.
Unfortunately, Froman's injury was much more severe, and kept the quarterback from competing in four games, while limiting him in other key matchups. Obviously, losing a quarterback is never easy to deal with, especially one as talented and experienced as Froman. In eight games, the signal caller completed just over 60 percent of his throws and tossed 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. However, in Froman's stead was Justin Burke, who performed admirably. Burke threw eight touchdowns and completed 56.7 percent of his passes, and as of right now he will be getting the nod on Tuesday over Froman.
"(Adam) Froman is practicing, but (Justin) Burke is still the starter. You still have all three guys with Froman, Burke and (Will) Stein. You watched Froman go down early in the season and then Burke came in to lead the football team. Burke went down in the Rutgers game and Stein came in. This is good because all three guys understand the system and you are comfortable with all three guys."
With the Louisville offense not reaching its full potential this year, the defense had to enhance its play to get to six wins and remain competitive in league play.
The biggest factor in the defense's success was Hakeem Smith. The redshirt freshman stepped into the safety position and led this defense with his physical and emotional style of play. The hard-hitting playmaker paced Louisville with 80 tackles, and his play on the field earned him a spot on the conference's Second Team, but more importantly led to the honor of being named Big East Rookie of the Year. Smith was not alone in the secondary however, as Johnny Patrick also played a huge role, collecting a team-high five interceptions. With those picks and his ability to be a shut down corner, Patrick was named to the league's First Team and helped Louisville limit the opposition to just 162.5 ypg via the pass.
If there was an issue with coach Strong's defense it has come against the run. Louisville is not being abused from game to game, but the team is surrendering 142.2 ypg, which clearly suggests there are holes to exploit in the frontline. Louisville is holding opponents under 20.0 ppg on the season, and if the team wishes to keep the Golden Eagles from crossing that plateau, than the Cardinals will definitely need to fill the gaps up front.
The biggest difference in so many bowl games is the play of the defense. Usually the team with the more consistent unit will win, and if that theory is true than the Cardinals should be flying high by the final whistle.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Louisville 31, Southern Miss 24
12/15 11:38:48 ET