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Contending for championships has been an annual expectation for Southern Miss ever since Conference USA came into being in 1996.

Southern Miss has won four championships over that time, including its most recent title in 2003.

The Golden Eagles are C-USA East champions and preparing to play in the C-USA championship game at Houston on Friday, but no one at Southern Miss is throwing any parades.

"I think there's a high expectation level here," said Jeff Bower, Southern Miss' head coach since 1991. "There's been a tradition of 13 straight winning seasons ... There's a lot of pride, and I think our players have a lot of pride in this program. They wanted to get to this point where we are right now. We haven't finished it yet, but we have the opportunity."

The Golden Eagles (8-4, 6-2 C-USA) have this opportunity because of the way they've learned to play this season. They knew the passing game might struggle this season with the transition from three-year starter Dustin Almond to first-year starter Jeremy Young. That's been the case, with Young playing inconsistently throughout the season and completing 57.3 percent of his passes for only 118.6 yards per game, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Along the way, the Golden Eagles realized they had to win with defense and the running game. They struggled to do that through a difficult midseason slump in which they lost three of four to Tulsa, Virginia Tech and East Carolina, but they bounced back once their defense took over.

The Golden Eagles have won four consecutive games with their defense allowing only 23 points in the past three games. Southern Miss now leads the conference in scoring defense, allowing 18.2 points per game.

"More than anything, it's just persistence," Southern Miss offensive coordinator Jay Johnson told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "We've really tried to stay with it. ... I think we've tried to maintain that through the entire game, and as games have progressed, we've become more effective."

With true freshman Damion Fletcher finally healthy again after midseason minor knee surgery and true freshman Tory Harrison emerging as a capable backup, the Golden Eagles lead C-USA with 174 rushing yards per game.

"We've done a good job running the ball, and it helps when you can do that," Bower said.

Last week against Marshall, the Golden Eagles forced four turnovers and ran for 226 yards in a 42-7 win that clinched the division title.

Even with both of those attributes working in their favor, the Golden Eagles know they're going to have to get some help from the passing game to move the ball and score points against a Houston offense that leads the conference in scoring and total offense.

When Southern Miss faced Houston earlier in the season and won 31-27 in Hattiesburg, the Golden Eagles got two touchdown passes and a touchdown run from Young.

"Obviously, you'd like to win the time of possession and try to keep their offense off the field," Bower said. "At the same time, you have to do what's best for you, offensively. You have to score on these guys. They can score points."


   SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Southern Miss is at its best when able to run the ball consistently. Those games were few and far between from 2003-05 but they've become more common in 2006, with true freshman TB Damion Fletcher rushing for 112.7 yards per game and Southern Miss averaging 174.3 yards rushing per game. It helps to have a solid, experienced offensive line anchored by senior OG George Batiste, but the Golden Eagles have to do a better job in the passing game. QB Jeremy Young needs to be more productive and dependable and his receivers need to step up. TE Shawn Nelson finally looked healthy last week and it showed as he caught six passes for 63 yards and a TD.

   SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Southern Miss is living up to its tradition as a defensive power this season, especially over the second half of the season. With a deep, active line, and playmakers such as LBs Gerald McRath and Tokumbo Abanikanda and DBs Brandon Sumrall, LeVance Richmond and Jasper Faulk, the defense has allowed 20 points over the past three games. The Golden Eagles are allowing 18.2 points, 131.2 rushing yards and 303.8 total yards per game with 23 takeaways and 24 sacks.

   QUOTE TO NOTE: "They're good, really good. Since we beat them, they've won five in a row. We all know how good the quarterback is. He's outstanding. He doesn't throw many interceptions; he's only thrown four picks out of 373 throws. That's something else. They have two good backs in Jackie Battle and Anthony Alridge. Alridge can fly. He's averaging 11.3 yards per carry. They're using him a lot more than they were entering our first game against each other. He was primarily a wide-out, but now he'll be in the backfield. They're going to get him the football. ... Defensively, they're playing well. They're really solid on defense. They're a team that has maintained their health throughout the season. They're in good shape, and they had an open week this past week. They've had some extra time to heal up and get ready. I think they're a very good football team. They can score points, and they're playing well on defense." -- Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower.


   THIS WEEK'S GAME: Southern Miss at Houston, C-USA championship game, Friday, Dec. 1 -- Southern Miss has made a habit of winning conference championships, with four since C-USA came into being in 1996. Houston hasn't come close to winning the conference title since it shared the championship with Southern Miss in 1996. Both teams finished strong, with Houston winning five consecutive games and Southern Miss winning its past four games. Houston hasn't since a 31-27 loss at Southern Miss on Oct. 14. A lot of things have changed for both teams since that game, especially with the improvement Houston has made with its defense and running game. If the Cougars can run the ball effectively and keep Southern Miss from controlling the ball, they'll be hard to beat in this game. If Southern Miss can pass the ball just enough to keep some of the pressure off the running game and blitz Houston QB Kevin Kolb as effectively as Memphis did two weeks ago, the Golden Eagles will be hard to beat, even on the road.

  PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Jeremy Young -- A first-year starter who's completing 57.3 percent of his passes for only 118.6 yards per game, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, Young has been inconsistent throughout the season. However, he was at his best on Oct. 14 when Southern Miss beat Houston, passing for 180 yards and two TDs and running for another score.

TB Damion Fletcher -- Fletcher has produced one of the top seasons by a Southern Miss or C-USA freshman running back. In his first 11 games as a Golden Eagle, Fletcher has carried 241 times for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns and is just the second freshman in Southern Miss history to run for 1,000 yards.

Despite missing the Virginia Tech (Oct. 21) game following minor knee surgery, Fletcher still ranks second in C-USA in rushing and is 11th in the nation and leads all Division 1 true freshmen running backs in yards per game at 112.7.

TE Shawn Nelson -- Nelson has been hindered by injuries this season but played well against Marshall last week, catching six passes for 63 yards and a 23-yard touchdown.

FS LeVance Richmond -- Richmond has intercepted two passes in the past three games and three for the entire season. He's also forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and returned for a fumble for a touchdown.

DE Robert Henderson -- Henderson's potential has finally become production this season. Henderson leads all Southern Miss linemen with 57 tackles to go with 12 tackles for loss and four sacks.

   ROSTER REPORT: Fletcher will have to carry a lot of the load against Houston because fellow freshman TB Tory Harrison is unlikely to play because of a bruised shoulder. Senior TB Conrad Chanove will be Fletcher's backup against Houston.

Junior DT Sean Merrill continues to play through a nagging knee injury that makes it hard for him to practice day after day. He finished with only two tackles against Marshall last week but the coaches were more than pleased with the way he stood his ground and was able to help Southern Miss control the line of scrimmage. "I'm really proud of Sean Merrill for bouncing back and playing hurt and playing well for us," Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower said.

Previous Report: 11/26/2006




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