As much as anybody, Ellis Johnson knows what a win over Central Florida last weekend could have done to jump-start the collective morale at Southern Mississippi.
The Golden Eagles took UCF, now alone in first place in Conference USA's East Division, to double overtime in Orlando last weekend, but fell 38-31. Southern Miss (0-6, 0-2) could not stop the Knights' running game in the extra periods, and freshman Anthony Alford threw a game-ending interception.
And now, the Eagles are on the brink of suffering their first losing season since 1993 when Marshall (2-4, 1-1) comes to Hattiesburg. Kickoff for USM's homecoming game is 7 p.m. EDT Saturday, with the game airing on CBS College Sports.
"It's a tough loss and then tacked on top of five previous losses, it's a load that these players have to bear right now," said Johnson, Southern Mississippi's first-year coach. "They are obviously smart enough to understand how much better we are playing. I think [UCF] is potentially the best team in the conference; time will tell. There were many, many times in the game that we went toe-to-toe and outperformed them."
That was the sentiment shared by those who attended player interviews Monday at Marshall. Some watched the game live; all have seen cut-up video since Saturday night.
"That's not an 0-6 team at all. That's a great 0-6 team," said Herd linebacker D.J. Hunter. "We can't sleep on them at all. They had a tough schedule this year; they played teams like Nebraska, stuff like that. They played some good schools this year."
Areas in which the Eagles outperformed the Knights included an edge in rushing yardage (194-182), not allowing a sack and recording three, putting together two 75-yard touchdown drives and, most important, rallying from a 24-14 deficit to force overtime.
That comeback had Johnson, who was South Carolina's defensive coordinator last year, thinking about a big first head coaching victory. But the Eagles couldn't shake persistent fatal flaws, such as:
"People are running the ball on us," Johnson said. "All in except one ball game, they've run the football whenever they need to run the ball."
"It kills you on momentum, field position, emotion," Johnson said. "We just don't have anything to feed off of sometimes."