HATTIESBURG, Miss. - Difference in climate aside, the parallels between Marshall and Southern Mississippi are uncanny.When the Thundering Herd takes the field tonight in Mississippi's Pine Belt, it will do so in a 36,000-seat stadium on a somewhat compact campus in a small, proud town. With perfect weather in the forecast, expect a good walk-up at the ticket booth and an enthusiastic crowd in the upper-20,000s.Kickoff is at 7 p.m. EDT, with the game airing on CBS Sports Network. Viewers will see two teams who have taken similar hard-luck routes to this game.The Herd (2-4, 1-1 Conference USA) may have two more victories than the Golden Eagles (0-6, 0-2), but their seasons have these similarities: Both got clocked by big-name teams, Marshall by West Virginia and Southern Miss by Nebraska.Both suffered more competitive losses to other BCS schools, Marshall to Purdue and Southern Miss to Louisville.Both were beaten by solid teams from historically lesser-regarded conferences, Marshall by Ohio and Southern Miss by Western Kentucky.Both should play tonight with a high degree of desperation on Southern Mississippi's homecoming night.
For the Eagles, a loss snaps their 18-year streak of winning seasons - that from a team that won 12 games last year and heisted the Conference USA championship.
A win tonight could do more than improve morale and give new coach Ellis Johnson his first win in Hattiesburg. The Eagles' schedule suggests a very possible six-game winning streak, a bowl bid and a chance to salvage another winning season."Ellis Johnson, with what he had to face with a young quarterback, had his hands full," said Herd coach Doc Holliday. "He's got Nebraska. He's got Boise. He's got Louisville. He goes to Western Kentucky, a team that is 5-1 and beat Kentucky. He's got East Carolina."But he hasn't lost his players. He has held them together. They're playing extremely hard. That's a tribute to him and that's a tribute to that team."Marshall has won just one game against an FBS opponent, but that was a conference road game. The Thundering Herd also has a lot on the line - a loss would make MU 2-5, 1-2 with Central Florida coming to Huntington next week.On the other hand, if the Herd earns its second win in Hattiesburg in four tries, the UCF game becomes a toe-to-toe bout for leadership in the East Division.
Holliday's troops welcomed their hiatus last week, resting minds and getting healthier. Defensive tackle Ken Smith may make his Herd debut, while linebacker Billy Mitchell is scheduled to get his first action of the season.
But there is one trend the Herd must buck: It has lost its last four games following a full week off, dating back to October 11, 2003 (over Kent State, two weeks after a loss to Troy State).Rested, rusty or both, the Herd must cope with most of the same issues it has faced in the first six games.Offensively, it must avoid critical turnovers, especially those that result in defensive touchdowns. Rakeem Cato had two interceptions returned for touchdowns against Purdue, while Aaron Dobson's fumble led to a Tulsa touchdown and a two-score deficit two weeks ago.Get that under control and the Herd can expect another big day, whether by land, air or both. The Eagles are 95th in the country in rush defense (196.5 yards allowed per game) and 113th in opposing pass efficiency rating - the latter not a good figure with Cato's 385-yard-per-game passing attack.Marshall's defense, 120th and last in America in yielding points (44.5) and 111th in rushing defense (229.0), in on trial again. It doesn't take Knute Rockne to figure out what Southern Miss might do - the Eagles have a veteran offensive line, one accomplished senior (Desmond Johnson) and an emerging freshman (Jalen Richard) at running back and a mobile quarterback in Anthony Alford.Memories of Rice QB Taylor McHargue having his way still dance through the head of MU defensive coordinator Chris Rippon.
"We made that analogy today," Rippon said after practice Tuesday. "Rice, eight missed tackles, two plays, 154 yards. And I don't know if [Alford] is as fast [as McHargue] - they're close. They geared their game plan to him, they'll take their shots but they'll limit their passing game."That's one of several ways these two teams are different. Another will come after the game, when one team's season perks up and the other team's year suffers a considerable blow.Marshall, also 2-4 at the halfway pole a year ago, needs another strong second half. That probably has to begin tonight, and there's no complicated formula for accomplishing that."Take care of the ball and keep doing what you are doing [offensively]," Holliday said. "I think we're second in the country in third-down conversions. We're doing some really good things on offense, but take care of the ball. Just do that and we're fine."Defensively, create more turnovers and tackle. It's really a simple game."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.