Eagles see KU as signature opponent

Know the foe: Southern Miss

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Members of the Southern Mississippi football team don’t expect a whole lot of love when they take on Kansas University at 11 a.m. today at Memorial Stadium — or any other time, for that matter.

“(The players) understand that there aren’t going to be many people out there that are going to pick the Golden Eagles,” USM coach Larry Fedora said. “I think that’s going to be a big motivating factor to be the underdog. I think that’s kind of a fun thing.”

If Fedora’s sentiment sounds familiar, it should — it has been the battle cry of the Kansas University football team for the past few years, even as the program has rolled to back-to-back bowl victories, including an Orange Bowl title in 2007, and developed into a perennial Top-25 member.

In today’s matchup with the No. 20 Jayhawks, however, the script will be flipped as Southern Miss., a Conference USA school playing its first road game of the season, enters as a little-hyped team hoping to make a definitive statement on a national stage.

Despite their relative obscurity, the Golden Eagles have sprinted to a quick start this season. One of just 21 schools in the nation with a 3-0 record — Kansas is also in that group — Southern Miss. has notched victories over conference foe Central Florida and Virginia, while its eight consecutive victories dating back to last season represent the nation’s second-longest active win streak in the FBS, behind only the 2008 national champion Florida Gators.

“They beat what we think is a good ACC team,” KU coach Mark Mangino said. “They’re quicker than what we’ve seen. They’ve got more skill, perhaps, than what we’ve seen. So, yeah, it’s a good challenge for us, you bet.”

What the team lacks, however, is a statement victory, which is what it will be pursuing today.

Led by a rushing attack that ranks 12th in the nation with 247.7 yards per game, the Golden Eagles would appear to have the firepower necessary to keep today’s game close. Running backs Damion Fletcher and Tory Harrison have combined for 512 yards and six touchdowns this season, taking advantage of a Wildcat formation that has worked with significant success throughout the past three weeks. DeAndre Brown, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-6 sophomore who caught 67 passes for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman last season.

“I think it’s going to be a challenging team to beat,” said Harrison, an explosive playmaker who has ripped off six plays of 20 yards or more this season. “But anything’s possible. The only thing we got to do is control the things we can control, and I think it could be a pretty good ball game for us.”

Still, the excitement about what a potential victory could do for the program was evident this week.

While Fedora said Tuesday that he hadn’t talked to his players about the possibility of crashing the BCS party, he indicated that today’s game would provide a good measuring stick for a program hoping to make a run at its first Conference USA championship since 2003.

“You have to win these types of games (to have a shot at a BCS game),” Fedora said. “Basically, you have to go undefeated. Whatever is on your schedule, you have to win.

“We have to win this football game if that’s what we want to do.”