Tennessee desperately needs a win, but Southern Miss is no pushover
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee (3-5, 0-5) faces Southern Miss to start the November schedule. Obviously it’s a must-win to increase their bowl chances.
Southern Miss suffered 30-12 home loss to UAB last week. UAB, of course, is in its first season back after a two-year program hiatus following the 2014 season.
The Blazers are truly an expansion team that has exceeded expectations with a 5-3 record. After losing 32 players since his 2013 arrival, Butch Jones’ current team is not too far removed from his 2014 “expansion team” due to attrition and injuries.
Dave West of the Daily Dragon covers UAB. He helped break down Southern Miss with Saturday Down South, giving Vol fans a perspective in what to expect Saturday night inside Neyland Stadium.
Southern Miss offense
The Golden Eagle offense ranks 44th overall nationally. They average 175 yards rushing (52nd) and 263.6 passing (40th).
The stats suggest Southern Miss is balanced, but the Golden Eagles have not been able to field balance in every game. Last week against UAB, Southern Miss threw for 266 yards, but ran for just 81.
“I think Southern Miss would like to be a more balanced offense, but their lack of production from the receiver position has caused them to rely heavily on the run game behind the quarterback position and running back Ito Smith,” West told Saturday Down South.
On early downs, UAB loaded the box on Southern Miss and Smith struggled finding space outside due to UAB’s quick secondary and linebackers.
At 5-9 and 195-pounds, Smith is a smaller back and running between the tackles is not his forte.
Quarterback Keon Howard can provide a spark by being elusive.
West questions Southern Miss’ quarterbacks going against Tennessee and an SEC defense. The Vols should be able to pressure Howard and “the lack of a passing game really causes them to struggle because defenses know there is not much of a threat to beat them with a passing game arm whether in the pocket or scrambling.”
Southern Miss has played two quarterbacks in Keon Howard (sophomore, 6-1, 205-pounds) and Kwadra Griggs (senior, 6-foot-3, 225-pounds) this season.
Howard is 89-for-148, throwing for 1,099 passing yards, 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions on the season. He also has 152 rushing yards on 44 attempts.
Griggs is 71-for-136, 1,010 passing yards, 8 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The senior has 91 rushing yards and 1 TD on 42 attempts.
Last week against UAB, Howard played until the last drive when the game was out of hand.
West “fully expects Howard to be the quarterback on Saturday” against Tennessee.
Even with Tennessee having problems on defense, giving up 252.3 yards per game (125th nationally), the Vols hold the nation’s No. 1 passing defense giving up 148.6 yards per game through-the-air.
That is enough for West to feel that Tennessee can make Southern Miss “one-dimensional” due to the Vols’ “defensive speed and size on the line.”
There is no question that the Southern Miss offense is centered around senior running back Ito Smith (3,940 career rushing yards, 36 TDs). But he’s more than a runner. He also has 127 career receptions totaling 1,375 receiving yards with 7 TDs.
West wasn’t at full strength against UAB after suffering an injury the previous week.
“Smith is still dangerous even when he is not 100 percent,” he said. “They love to run him on wheel routes and screens. The Vol defense will have to prioritize keeping him contained and accounted for.”
Golden Eagle defense
Southern Miss ranks 27th overall in defense, and is top 50 in rushing and passing defense.
West said Southern Miss focuses on controlling of the middle of the field.
“UAB had a really hard time finding anything in the middle of the field or deep,” he said. “Their secondary unit as a whole is what stands out defensively.”
Regardless if John Kelly returns from suspension, UT running backs Ty Chandler and Carlin Fils-Aime will have to work for their yards against a stacked box, but their athleticism and power could create game-changing plays.
UAB’s freshman running back Spencer Brown rushed for 209 yards last week against the Golden Eagles and West believes Southern Miss will “struggle if you hit them with a bigger, stronger power running back.
“Southern Miss’ defense had been good before UAB played them, but Spencer Brown had a 200-yard day, which leads me to believe they will struggle if you hit them with a bigger, stronger power running back.”