The Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (9-3, 7-1) will take on the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (10-2, 8-0) in the Conference USA Championship Game Saturday afternoon. Western Kentucky claimed the only matchup between the two schools as the Hilltoppers took a 42-17 win at home as a 3 point favorite on September 22, 2012.
Southern Mississippi closed the season with six straight victories as they trounced Louisiana Tech 58-24 on the road to reach the conference title game. Western Kentucky won four straight to end the year, including a 49-28 whipping of Marshall to punch their ticket to the conference title game. Kickoff from L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Kentucky is scheduled for 12:00 pm ET and will be televised on ESPN2. Western Kentucky is currently favored by 7.5 points with the over/under set at 73 points in this contest.
Southern Miss jumped to a 24-3 lead in the second quarter and didn’t let Louisiana Tech closer than 14 the rest of the way. The Golden Eagles blew the doors off in the fourth quarter as they outscored the Bulldogs 27-7 to put it away. Southern Miss outgained Louisiana Tech 555-405 and nipped Louisiana Tech 30:04 to 29:56 in the time of possession battle. The Golden Eagles gave up 27 first downs while picking up 25 but capitalized on seven Louisiana Tech turnovers; they committed only one turnover offensively.
The Golden Eagles currently are 10th in the nation in passing with an average of 340.2 yards per game; they are 37th in the nation in rushing with an average of 194.7 yards per game. Southern Miss averages 41.7 points per game, which is tied for 9th in the nation; they are allowing 22.4 points per contest, which has them tied for 36th in the nation in scoring defense. Nick Mullens has hit 64.2 percent of his passes (291 of 453) for 3,964 yards with 35 touchdowns and nine picks while averaging 8.75 yards per pass attempt. The Golden Eagles have a solid 1-2 punch on the ground with Jalen Richard (177 carries, 1065 yards, 13 TD) and Ito Smith (140 carries, 983 yards, 7 TD) help move the sticks on the ground. Justice Hayes is a capable third back when he gets his chances; he has 45 carries for 195 yards and two scores. Casey Martin is the team’s leading receiver with 72 grabs for 819 yards and seven scores; Michael Thomas (56 receptions, team high 1,111 yards, 11 TD) is a solid #2 receiver and Smith has been a solid receiver out of the backfield with 41 grabs for 466 yards and three scores. DJ Thompson has hauled in 51 balls for 729 yards and six touchdowns and Richard has 27 catches from the backfield, giving Mullens two good safety valves out of the backfield. Southern Miss has had two kickers this season; they’ve combined for 62 of 66 on extra points and 12 of 18 on field goals with no kick longer than 39 yards.
Western Kentucky finished an unbeaten regular season in conference play as they clobbered Marshall: after leading 7-0 after one quarter, they outscored the Thundering Herd 28-14 in the second to take a 35-14 halftime edge. The Hilltoppers outgained Marshall by a 2:1 margin, 546-273, racked up 31 first downs while allowing 16 and dominated the time of possession by a 35:11 to 24:49 margin in the contest. Western Kentucky forced four Marshall turnovers while committing a pair; they did allow a kick return for a score.
The Hilltoppers boast the 6th most prolific passing offense in the country as they average 361.7 yards per game through the air, more than offsetting the fact that they are 84th in rushing offense with 158 yards per game; those numbers help contribute to Western Kentucky scoring 43.3 points a game, tied for 4th in the nation while they rank 54th in the nation in scoring defense by allowing 25 points per contest. Brandon Doughty has been dominant under center, completing 72.5 percent of his throws (322 of 444) for 4,184 yards, 42 TD and 6 INT while averaging 9.42 yards per pass attempt. That helps make up for a run game that struggled early on but now averages 4.8 yards per carry: D’Andre Ferby is second on the team with 130 carries for 547 yards and nine scores while Anthony Wales has 129 carries for 933 yards plus seven scores. That duo has to produce with Leon Allen (27 carries, 137 yards, 2 TD) done for the year. Five players have hauled in at least 37 passes for the Hilltoppers: Taywan Taylor leads the team with 71 receptions for 1,198 yards and 15 scores. Jared Dangerfield (67 catches, 688 yards, 7 TD), Tyler Higbee (37 grabs, 555 yards, 8 TD), Nicholas Norris (53 receptions, 804 yards, 4 TD) and Antwane Grant (52 catches, 547 yards, 6 TD) are part of a plethora of riches at the skill positions. Garrett Schwettman has hit 67 of 68 extra points and 13 of 14 field goal attempts with a long of 46 yards.
Western Kentucky is 7-1 ATS in their last eight after allowing less than 275 yards, 4-1 ATS in their last five at home and 7-2-1 ATS in their last 10 conference games. Southern Miss is 1-3-1 ATS in their last five after allowing less than 100 yards on the ground, 1-4 ATS in their last five against teams with a winning record and 3-14-1 ATS in their last 18 after allowing at least 280 yards through the air.
The Golden Eagles have had a fantastic season after being absolutely dismal last year. With that said, they haven’t been great on the road and they’ve had problems against good teams, last week’s win being an exception to the rule. Western Kentucky is a prolific offense that lights up the scoreboard: they beat Marshall by 21 while Southern Miss lost to Marshall by 21. That’s enough to give the edge to the Hilltoppers in this contest.