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:
Shaky run defense, which runs contrary to the old Southern Miss reputation. UCF ran six times for 37 yards in the overtimes, with fresh-legged Latavious Murray leading the way. For the season, Southern Miss is giving up nearly 200 rushing yards per game.
"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."
Southern Miss can't buy a takeaway. The Eagles were blanked for the third time, and have forced just four turnovers all season.
"It kills you on momentum, field position, emotion," Johnson said. "We just don't have anything to feed off of sometimes."
Giving up a touchdown with 5 seconds left in the first half didn't help matters, either. That gave UCF a 17-7 lead at the intermission, forcing the Eagles into catch-up mode the entire second half.
"All six ball games, the opponent has gotten the last punch before the half. All six," Johnson said. "Some of it was right at the half. Some of it was a minute or two before, but they've gotten the last hit. We've got to find some way to turn that around."
Southern Miss still has a few things to turn around, but the Eagles also think they have plenty of reasons they can beat Marshall - and the five following opponents, who have a combined record of 7-25.
"As I've told them before, we're good enough to beat anybody left, but we're not good enough that we can play badly and beat any of them," Johnson said.
Johnson gave no indication that Anthony Alford won't be the starting quarterback against Marshall. He did not give a status report on Chris Campbell, who has missed the last three games with a neck injury.
Alford, one of three quarterbacks the Eagles have used, went 14 of 27 for 165 yards, and rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns. But he threw two interceptions, including the game-ending pick in the second overtime.
"The second pick just sailed high on him. It was a poor location or poor control of the ball," Johnson said. "Again, he made the exact right read, went to the right guy, but he threw it high. He was real devastated - he's a competitor, but I think he's come out of this game with some confidence."
Johnson said there were no additional injuries from the UCF game, and he expects boundary safety Jacorius Cotton to return this week, Johnson did declare wide receiver Markese Triplett, who missed the last two games, out for the season. Triplett caught a TD pass against East Carolina in the second week.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.