Green Wave, Golden Eagles square off a week after both teams suffered last-second losses
Whether it's due to anger or embarrassment, it's all motivation to hit the field hard for the non-conference tilt at M. M. Roberts Stadium. Both programs are licking their wounds after losing late and in dramatic fashion last Saturday.
"Obviously, we'd like to have it back," Green Wave head coach Willie Fritz told the AP after blowing a 24-0 lead to Navy in a 27-24 setback decided on a field goal as time expired.
"This is tough," linebacker Nick Anderson told the AP after getting upstaged in Tulane's first appearance on ABC in 40 years. "It's something we've got to swallow and man up."
Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles allowed a fourth-down touchdown pass to beat them with 14 seconds remaining in a 31-30 nailbiter with Conference USA West Division rival Louisiana Tech.
The last-minute loss spoiled the debut for Southern Miss interim head coach Scott Walden, who stepped into the role after Jay Hopson resigned shortly after the Golden Eagles' Sept. 7 season-opening loss, citing new leadership was needed after going 28-23 in his tenure.
So now Walden and his team look to dig themselves out from an 0-2 hole while Tulane is hoping to bounce back on the road before getting back to American Athletic Conference play. These teams also met in January in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, a game the Green Wave won handily, 30-13. Despite that victory, Southern Miss holds a commanding 23-8 edge in the overall series.
Tulane at Southern Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26 at 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: Stadium Network
Spread: Tulane -3.5
When Tulane Has the Ball
There's not much really new about the Tulane offense under Fritz this year, even though there's a new face toting the rock a ton.
Yes, it's run-oriented — rolling up 265 rushing yards last weekend against Navy — with freshman running back Tyjae Spears as the lead man, with 18 carries for 119 yards last Saturday and 224 for the season. Sophomore Cameron Carroll is second on the team with 88 yards on the ground.
So for Tulane, the run game seems to be the best way to get things done, especially with the young guys. Or maybe it's because the Green Wave just don't get enough consistency from senior quarterback Keon Howard. He's prone to turnovers and a tough one to hang your hat on. Case in point, Howard was just 10-of-25 for 108 passing yards and one interception in last week's collapse.
But Tulane is trying to get its passing game revved up by using plenty of pass catchers — 10 different ones so far in 2020. Sophomore Jha'Quan Jackson, who is billed as the team's playmaker, and junior Phat Watts have just four receptions apiece to share the team lead through two games.
And finding consistency against Southern Miss may be in the cards considering the Golden Eagles' early struggles on defense. After ranking 18th nationally against the run last season, USM has given up 163 rushing yards in each of the first two games. That's not a good sign against a team that prefers to run the ball.
When Southern Miss Has the Ball
The Golden Eagles differ from Tulane when it comes to confidence in the quarterback position. Senior Jack Abraham is considered one of the best at his position among the Group of 5 conferences and he's started out by completing 72 percent of his passes for 578 yards. Last week, he went 24-of-32 for 264 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in the close loss to Louisiana Tech.
Abraham's top target in the early going has been senior wide receiver Tim Jones, who caught eight passes for 160 yards against the Bulldogs and leads all FBS players with 299 yards on 14 catches through two games. Jones' success comes as no surprise since he led the team with 73 receptions for 902 yards with three touchdowns last season.
But the Abraham-to-Jones connection must get more support from others on an offense that's trying to break free from mediocrity. The offensive line needs to improve, as does the ground game, and Southern Miss needs to take care of the football. Last season, the Golden Eagles finished last in Conference USA and 122nd (out of 130 FBS teams) nationally with a minus-11 turnover margin.
On the ground, Southern Miss is currently led by freshman Frank Gore Jr., son of the current Jet and No. 3 rusher in league history, who has 71 yards on 18 carries thus far.
For Tulane's defense, it starts up front with senior linemen Patrick Johnson and Cameron Sample, who each have been credited with a pair of sacks through two games. It's early, but the Green Wave have done a pretty good job against the run as they held option-oriented Navy to 204 yards on 56 carries last week (3.6 ypc). Through the air, the damage hasn't been extensive (233.5 yards per game) but Tulane has surrendered three touchdown passes with no interceptions so that's something to keep an eye on in this matchup against Abraham and the Golden Eagles' aerial attack.
Two home losses to start the season already aren't sitting well with the Golden Eagles. So a third would really cut down their confidence as they prepare to enter the meat of the Conference USA schedule.
So there's the motivation for victory, along with a spirit — in defiance of last week's late-game loss — to perform for interim head coach Scott Walden.
"The overall energy on the sideline was the best it's been since I've been here," Abraham told the Hattiesburg American. "I went to each and every guy in the locker room after the game and told them how proud I am of them and how I really see an improvement from Week 1 to Week 2. I think everybody's really rallying around coach Walden, and it's really valuable to see."
Meanwhile, Tulane's second-half collapse vs. Navy could be a confidence killer in itself. And the Green Wave seem fragile at a few pivotal positions, whereas an effective Abraham is likely the key to victory for the home team.
Prediction: Southern Miss 26, Tulane 20
Podcast: The SEC is Back Too & Week 4 Preview
(Top photo courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)