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Fatigue taking toll on USM defense

HUNTINGTON - Winless Southern Mississippi has given up 72 points in the first half over the last two games, nearly a quarter of the 296 points the Golden Eagles have surrendered in seven games.

That season number computes to 42.3 points per game - not exactly reminiscent of the fearsome defense that helps define this program's tradition.

To put those troubles in perspective, consider this - the Eagles yielded 296 or more points over an entire season only twice during the Jeff Bower era, from 1991-2007.

Marshall coaches certainly have identified the weaknesses that have the Eagles giving up all these points, but you know they're not tipping their hand. In traditional coachspeak, they're identifying the strengths, which do exist.

"Turn the film on against Arkansas and watch them," said MU offensive coordinator Bill Legg. "Turn the film on against Nebraska and watch them. I mean, they get after them. They get after them really good."

Arkansas wore down the Eagles to take a 24-3 win in mid-September. A week earlier, Nebraska took a 21-3 first-quarter lead but that was deceptive - the Cornhuskers scored twice on interception returns.

And that's a recurring theme - this Southern Miss defense is getting very little help from the offense. If that offense isn't giving up defensive touchdowns (three), it's setting opponents up with a short field. Also, the Eagles' offense isn't holding on to the ball long - the first 15 of its 16 possessions against North Texas lasted less than 2 minutes, and that's not because they were successful.

The Eagles have not led in time of possession in any game, and are suffering a 10-plus minute deficit for the season. That happens when you convert third downs at a 26 percent rate, 119th of 123 teams in the FBS, and happens with 26 turnovers in seven games.

All that simply wears down the defense - often late in the second quarter, in which the Eagles have given up 113 points, a 16-point average. Boise State scored 23 in that frame, Florida International 21 and North Texas 28.

"You watch them in the first quarter, and they're as good a defense as we've played all year," Legg said. "But as the game wears on and they're back on the field and back on the field and they're back on the field, that's where the issues come in."

Such spirited early play could give Marshall's offense some trouble, as the Thundering Herd (4-3, 2-1 Conference USA) takes on the Eagles (0-7, 0-3) at noon Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. For the most part, the Herd has struggled in opening possessions.

It started the season with three straight punts against Miami (Ohio), didn't score in six of the first seven drives at Ohio, the first two series at Virginia Tech, the first three at Florida Atlantic and four of the first five against Middle Tennessee. Only against Gardner-Webb and Texas-San Antonio has the Herd started fast and jumped out to an early lead.

"At the start, we're trying to get rid of the three-and-outs," said quarterback Rakeem Cato. "That's the biggest thing we're working on."

DeBarriaus Miller leads the Eagles with 67 tackles, followed by linebacker Terrick Wright (55). Wright has moved into the middle, making room for Dylan Reda, who has returned from missing two games with a concussion. He had 14 tackles last week against North Texas.

But a lot of focus is directed at No. 98, Khryi Thornton, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior who has 28 tackles, 41/2 for loss, from his nose tackle spot.

"He's an NFL prospect, and he's got all the intangibles," Reda said. "People have to game-plan for him 100 percent; they need to come into that game knowing he's big, he's strong, he's physical, he's fast, he's got all the tools. And you really need to plan around where he is.

"You just can't double-team him ... he plays off double-teams well and he's a dominant force up front. He helps the linebackers get around and make plays because he's double-teamed so often."  

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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