New coach Ellis Johnson faced a daunting task, having lost the core of last season's 12-2 team, including the starting quarterback, leading rusher and seven starters on defense. He was confident he was up to the challenge, but it has been a nightmare so far.
The Golden Eagles are 0-3, have been outscored 115-51 and rank near the bottom of the nation in virtually every statistical category.
Last Saturday USM traveled to Western Kentucky and got whipped 42-17. It was 42-3 before the Golden Eagles scored two late touchdowns.The Hilltoppers scored touchdowns on six of their first eight possessions, rushed for 364 yards (7.7 per carry) and outgained USM 560 yards to 264.
"I was so disappointed with the way we played fundamentally -- blocking, tackling, the basics of football," said Johnson.
Said senior defensive end Jamie Collins: "We weren't tough. That's all there is to it."
USM also lost its first- and second-string quarterbacks to injury and had to turn to a redshirt freshman who had never completed a pass previously. All in all the Golden Eagles are 0-3 for the first time since 1976, and their streaks of 18 straight winning seasons and 10 straight bowl games are in dire jeopardy.
Against WKU, Ricky Lloyd (6-2, 198) replaced starter Chris Campbell and backup Anthony Alford at quarterback in the second half after both were injured, although neither had been effective. Campbell had completed 2 of 5 passes for just 15 yards, Alford 2 of 7 for 14 yards. Lloyd was an improvement, going 4 of 5 for 72 yards and a TD, although it came when the outcome was well decided.
The two leading rushers -- junior Jeremy Hester (5-6, 176) and senior Desmond Johnson (5-11, 200) -- each ran for 39 yards, and only one receiver, junior Justin Sims (5-7, 165), caught more than one pass. He caught two for 15 yards. Six others caught one apiece.
USM, which has been operating out of a spread offense, is 81st in the country in rushing at 146.33 ypg, 116th in passing at 136.33 ypg, 115th in total offense at 282.67 ypg and 113th in scoring at 17.0 ppg. The Golden Eagles are tied for 105th in sacks allowed at 3.0 a game and also tied for 105th in turnover margin at -1.33 a game despite making no TOs against Western.
The only encouraging stats for USM are kickoff returns (5th, 32.3-yard average) and punt returns (12th, 19.0-yard average). That's because of senior Tracey Lampley (5-9, 168), who was named the C-USA Preseason Special Teams Player of the Year.
Collins (6-4, 239) leads the team in tackles with 27 and in tackles for a loss with 6.5, including two sacks. No one else has more than 2.5 tackles for a loss or more than one sack. USM has only four sacks as a team.
The Golden Eagles are 112th in the country in rushing defense, allowing 234.67 ypg, 76th in pass defense (238.67 ypg), 104th in total defense (473.33 ypg) and 113th in scoring defense (38.33 ppg). They're tied for 87th in sacks at 1.33 a game and 98th in tackles for a loss at 4.67 a game.
The new defensive coordinator is Tommy West, formerly the head coach at Clemson and Memphis.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Lampley is an electric performer.
The return game.
Where to start?
Johnson, who replaced Larry Fedora, comes to USM from South Carolina, where he was the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator the past four seasons under Steve Spurrier. Before that he was a head coach for four years, one at Gardner-Webb and three at The Citadel, compiling a 17-28 record. He is known as a defensive guru and also served as defensive coordinator at Southern Miss, Alabama, Clemson and Mississippi State.
USM leads 18-10-1 in a series that dates to 1949. The Golden Eagles dominated the early meetings, including victories of 48-0 and 65-6, but the Cards have won the past five, including a 31-28 victory in the 2010 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
USM is coming off a brutal loss and should be cannon fodder for the Cards. The only concern is that USM will be desperate.
The most famous USM football alumnus is Brett Favre.
The Golden Eagles have had 18 straight winning season and have been to a bowl the last 10 years.