Much of the chatter heading into this game is the matchup of the high-flying Southern Miss offense against Washington's stout defense. Overlooked is the solid season the Golden Eagles' defense has had. They lead Conference USA in yards per game, and have held opponents to under 25 points per game on average.
This is a big game for both teams, and I expect the matchup between the Washington offense and Southern Miss defense to be a good one. If USM wins, they'll reach 10 wins on the year. If Washington wins, it's 7-6 and another step in the right direction. The Huskies are eager to put last year's disappointing bowl showing behind them, but they have to get through the Golden Eagle defense first.
DE Darian Yancey (RFr, 6-1, 225), DT Michael Smith (RSr, 6-4, 277), NT Andrew Bolton (RSr, 6-3, 304), DE Dylan Bradley (Jr, 6-1, 265)
Dylan Bradley headlines a pretty good Golden Eagle defensive line. He's got 6.5 sacks this year and made Conference USA's honorable mention all-conference team. In addition to his abilities rushing the passer, he's the team's fifth-leading tackler, and second in tackles for loss. He makes a big impact coming off the edge and making plays in the backfield. As a unit they hold opponents to under 4 yards per rush and less 150 yards on the ground per game.
OLB Anthony Swain (RSr, 6-2, 250), MLB Brian Anderson (Sr, 5-10, 248), OLB Elijah Parker (Jr, 6-2, 208)
As a defense, Southern Miss has made at least 6 tackles for loss in every game this year. They have a good defensive line, but they also like to bring pressure from their linebackers. Brian Anderson leads the group and is often called upon to blitz up the middle. He leads the team in tackles for loss with 13.5 and has 83 total tackles. He's the biggest playmaker among the linebackers, and perhaps the whole defense. He will likely be asked to stop Myles Gaskin in his tracks, and this is a big matchup that could determine how well Washington's offense can hum along.
CB Cornell Armstrong (So, 5-10, 175), S D'Nerius Antoine (Jr, 6-1, 231), S Picasso Nelson Jr (So, 5-10, 187), CB Kalen Reed (Sr, 5-11, 191)
Washington fans should be accustomed to knowing what having a true lockdown corner on a defense can do for a team. For Southern Miss, they have their man in Senior CB Kalen Reed. He's not an exceptional athlete, but can flat-out cover receivers. He's got 4 interceptions this year, and has taken 2 back for touchdowns. As a team, the Golden Eagles ballhawk quite well, picking off 13 passes and forcing 23 turnovers overall. Southern Miss actually ranks quite high in pass efficiency defense, at #35 in the country. That said, allowing 22 touchdown passes is nothing to brag about. On 3rd downs, when pass defense is key, Southern Miss only allows opponents to convert 36% of the time.
This is a much better defense than I expected. They're not elite, but they hold teams to under 25 points per game, have a couple of star players, and play solid team defense. They like to attack in the mold of ASU, though they don't blitz quite so often. They use four down linemen, but will often send a fifth player to create more pressure.
Will the Huskies be able to exploit any weaknesses? While Southern Miss has good pass efficiency defense, they're pretty average in their yards allowed and touchdown numbers. I suspect their aggressiveness will allow the Huskies chances to beat them over the top. The question is whether the Huskies can capitalize. Will it be like the Arizona State game, where they missed numerous chances to run away with the game in the first half? Or will they be the well-oiled machine that took apart Arizona, Washington State, and Oregon State?
I think it falls on the offensive line. If they can keep Southern Miss defenders out of the backfield and get the run game going, I think Washington should be able to score plenty to win the game.