The Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (5-3, 3-2 C-USA) travel to Knoxville to take on the struggling Tennessee Volunteers (3-5, 0-5 SEC) on Saturday. Tennessee and head coach Butch Jones look to salvage its hopes of a bowl bid with a win over the Golden Eagles. However, Southern Miss looks to spoil Tennessee’s homecoming as they roll into Neyland Stadium.
The Golden Eagles started out the 2017 on the right foot with a one-touchdown loss to the Kentucky Wildcats, who the Vols just lost to last week. Since, Southern Miss has gone 5-2, shutting out two of the opponents.
Last week, the Eagles were beat 30-12 by the UAB Blazers at home, which inevitably hurts their Conference-USA title hopes. The Blazers were down 12-7 going into halftime, and scored 23 unanswered points to defeat Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles defense gave up over 200 yards on the ground and through the air last Saturday, including a pick-six with just 35 seconds left to catapult UAB to second place in the West.
The Southern Miss quarterback competition has been a week-to-week battle between sophomore Keon Howard and junior transfer Kwadra Griggs. Howard and Griggs both have similar stats with over 1,000 yards passing and eight touchdowns a piece, with Howard tallying two more interceptions than Griggs. Both quarterbacks saw some action against the Blazers last week, as Howard threw for 207 yards, including a touchdown and an interception. Griggs had a rough game with just 59 passing yards on 5-of-13 passing and an interception.
Two players that have been consistent for the Eagles are running back Ito Smith and wide receiver Korey Robinson. Smith has logged over 800 yards and seven touchdowns this season, and has had over 100 all-purpose yards in six of his last eight games. He also registered over 2,500 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in his past two seasons at Southern Miss. Robinson has been the most consistent target for the Golden Eagles’ quarterbacks by far this season. He has tallied 12 catches, 200 yards and four touchdowns more than the next best receiver on the roster.
Defensively, Southern Miss has been dominant. The Eagles defense has contributed to two shutouts against Southern and UTEP. In those two games against Southern and UTEP, they held the two offenses to a combined 387 total yards. The Southern Miss defense allows just 21 points-per-game, and when they get valuable contributions from their offense they can be deadly. The Eagles defense could be a huge test for the struggling Tennessee offense.
The Volunteers are coming off their second loss to the Kentucky Wildcats in six years. Jones and Tennessee fell to the Wildcats 29-26, all while giving up nearly 300 rushing yards on the ground. The Vols had a solid offensive game for the first time all season with 445 total yards and no turnovers. However, it was Benny Snell Jr. and the Kentucky rush attack that squandered Tennessee’s chances in Lexington last week.
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the second time in 2017 with 242 yards on 18-of-23 passing. With starting running back John Kelly absent with a suspension, freshman running back Ty Chandler and Carlin Fils-Aime picked up the slack with a combined 193 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Overall, it was the Vols offensive line that made it so much tougher for the offense to succeed. The offensive line gave up seven sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss, making it hard for the Tennessee offense to be efficient in the long run.
For the first time in a while the Volunteers defense was able to get some rest thanks to the offense, but the lethal Wildcats rushing offense was too much for them to handle. While they did manage to force four turnovers, the Tennessee offense was unable to capitalize on them. The Vols defensive line was getting manhandled in the run game despite the turnovers, and tackling was once again a problem in the front seven. The Tennessee secondary only saw a handful of passes from Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, but they gave up big plays in nearly every completion.
The Southern Miss defense will play solid against the puttering Tennessee offense, but the Vols defense should be a huge test for the Golden Eagles offense. With running back John Kelly potentially being back on Saturday, the deep and talented Tennessee tailbacks will be dominant if their offensive line allows them to be. The Tennessee defense will handle their business and Guarantano will see plenty of passes to coincide with the Vols run game. Butch Jones and Tennessee will squeak out a win over the Golden Eagles in Neyland on Saturday.
Edited by Ben McKee
Featured image courtesy of UT Sports