MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Following a 31-7 loss at North Carolina State last weekend in its first road game of the 2012 season, life will not get any easier for the University of South Alabama football team.
Next up for the Jaguars (1-2) is a trip to Starkville, Miss., Saturday to take on Mississippi State. Not only will it be the first time USA has faced a Southeastern Conference opponent — the Jags are slated to face four other schools from the league in the next five years — but it will mark the first time the program will take on a nationally-ranked opponent.
The Bulldogs, who are 3-0 entering play coming off a 30-24 victory at Troy, stand 23rd in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls. Kickoff at Davis Wade Stadium is slated for 6 p.m., with the game televised regionally on a pay-per-view basis.
"You always prepare to win. If you're an odds maker you might not pick us to win, but there is somebody who gets beat every week who isn't supposed to. That's the way I look at it," Jaguar head coach Joey Jones commented. "We will go out and prepare. We were watching film of last week's game, and had we done some of the things we were supposed to do, the game would have been much closer. It all comes down to us, not how good our opponent is. If we do the right things and put ourselves in a position to win, we will have a chance, and if we don't we won't.
"We are going to get knocked around some, they have some big linemen. But we'll keep fighting back and trying to make plays and do what we are supposed to do, that is what we have to focus on."
Jake Johnson paced a defensive unit that allowed only 154 second-half yards to the Wolfpack with a season-best 14 total stops, which included one for a loss of five yards. Through three games, the senior inside linebacker is among the Sun Belt Conference leaders in tackles per game (third, 10.0 avg) as well as stops behind the line of scrimmage (third, four).
Fellow inside linebacker Enrique Williams has added 22 stops, while Alex Page leads the league with three sacks in three contests; after posting a career-best five total tackles at N.C. State, he tops USA's defensive linemen with 10 on the year. Cornerbacks Darrius Morrow and Tyrell Pearson have both broken up a pair of passes while collecting 11 and 14 stops, respectively, and Terrell Brigham is among the top five on the team with 13 tackles after recording a career-high seven last time out.
The Jag defense is among the top three in the Sun Belt in every statistical category, leading the conference giving up 22.3 points and 189.3 passing yards per outing. USA is allowing 300 yards per game overall — that figure is second best in the league — while pacing all SBC schools in both tackles per loss and sacks.
"I thought that we gave up a couple of big plays early in the game but the defense tightened up a good bit after that," stated Jones. "I thought our defensive front held up a good bit and got to the quarterback some, and they stopped the run fairly well."
MSU's defense is allowing just 14.3 points per game, and it has recorded 12 takeaways — seven interceptions, five fumble recoveries — making the Bulldogs one of three schools tied for the lead nationally in the latter category. Darius Slay has four interceptions and has recovered a fumble, while Johnthan Banks has picked off two passes as well to contribute to that total.
Cameron Lawrence has a team-leading 26 tackles, pacing a unit that is surrendering 141 yards per game on the ground and 210 passing. Troy recorded 572 yards of total offense against MSU last weekend.
Demetre Baker gained 100 all-purpose yards for the Jaguars in the NCSU game, rushing for 45 yards on seven attempts while catching five passes for 55 more — both receiving totals were career highs for the sophomore, who ranks ninth in the SBC with 61 rushing yards per game. With 238 all-purpose yards in three outings, he stands second on the squad behind wide receiver T.J. Glover; the sophomore has posted 259, with 78 coming on a team-high eight receptions. He also is second in the conference in kick returns (34.5 avg) and third in punt returns (13.2 avg).
Glover is one of six USA wide receivers and tight ends averaging at least two catches per game. Corey Besteda, Greg Hollinger and Bryant Lavender have seven receptions each — Besteda paces the team with 117 yards and an average of nearly 17 yards per catch — while Jeremé Jones and Wes Saxton both have six catches. Saxton recorded four catches for 72 yards last time out to lead the Jaguars in both categories.
C.J. Bennett and Ross Metheny are again expected to split snaps running the Jag offense. Metheny threw for 189 yards and a score, completing 14-of-20 attempts, against the Pack, while Bennett was 10-of-15 passing for 74 more. The two have combined to complete 61 percent of their attempts this fall for 614 yards and three scores.
USAis averaging 300.3 yards of offense this season, with 204.7 of those coming through the air.
"The biggest thing is that
we were 0-for-11 on third down, obviously that's not very good," Jones said. "We've got to be able to correct that — if you make four of those then you continue drives. Against a team like N.C. State you have to convert and at least get field goals to try and put some points on the board, and we didn't do that.
"We went through each of those one-by-one, and there were separate things that happened; one was on the quarterback, one was on the receiver, one was on a lineman not blocking a guy. They all know what we have to do, and when you put it all together we can make first downs."
Their counterpart, Tyler Russell, is posting nearly 230 yards of total offense on the year, having completed 46-of-79 passes for 651 yards and eight scores without an interception. Chad Bumphis and Chris Smith have caught 10 passes apiece, with the former scoring five touchdowns while averaging 23.6 yards per reception. In the Troy game, Bumphis had six catches for 180 yards and three scores.
MSU is also gaining almost 200 yards per outing rushing, with LaDarius Perkins recording 320 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries to lead the way.
The Bulldogs are averaging 38 points and 413.3 yards per contest in 2012. The unit is run by Les Koenning, who was named USA's first offensive coordinator by Jones but departed for his current position before the Jaguars played a game.
"They are very big. You look across their front line on offense and defense and they have guys who are 6-foot-6 and 340, 330, 325 pounds," Jones observed. "They have done a great job recruiting some very big linemen, which is the first thing you see. The second thing you see is that they are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They beat Auburn 28-10 a couple of weeks ago, they are playing at a high level and deservedly so.
"They are doing a good job early in the year."
This will be the first of three matchups between the two schools, with MSU scheduled to play in Mobile on Sept. 13, 2014, and the Jaguars set to return to Starkville on Sept. 10, 2016. USA will also visit Tennessee in 2013, Georgia the following fall, Louisiana State in 2016 and Mississippi a year later as part of its future schedules.
--USA media services
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