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December 20, 2009

New Orleans Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. Southern Miss

MORE: Bowl schedule

The teams in Sunday's New Orleans Bowl have vastly different bowl histories, but each got to this season's game with similar resumes.

Southern Miss is in the New Orleans Bowl for the second season in a row and the fourth time in the past six seasons. In addition, the Golden Eagles are making their eighth consecutive bowl appearance and the 12th in the past 13 seasons. Middle Tennessee State is playing in just its second bowl in school history.

Middle Tennessee, which has won six in a row, is 30th in the nation in total offense and has a plus-11 turnover margin. Southern Miss, which has won four of its past six, is 31st in the nation in total offense and also has a plus-11 turnover margin. The two losses were to Conference USA division champs East Carolina and Houston, by a combined 12 points.

MTSU has averaged 41.1 points during its winning streak. But none of the opponents during that streak finished with a winning record, and the Blue Raiders' NCAA schedule strength of 118th is the worst of any team in a bowl.

Southern Miss has won 13 consecutive games against Sun Belt Conference opponents, but this is the first SBC opponent for the Golden Eagles this season.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Middle Tennessee run offense vs. Southern Miss run defense: QB Dwight Dasher has had a strong season and leads MTSU in rushing. Sophomore RB D.D. Kyles moved into the starting role in mid-September when Phillip Tanner was lost for the season; Kyles has proved to be an able complement to Dasher. MTSU runs behind one of the better lines in the Sun Belt Conference. Middle Tennessee averages 181.3 rushing yards per game; in their three losses, the Blue Raiders averaged 81. For the most part, Southern Miss played solid run defense this season. But what has to worry Golden Eagles coaches is that UAB was the only team to rush for more than 200 on Southern Miss - and UAB, like MTSU, relies on its quarterback for the bulk of its ground game. Southern Miss LBs Korey Williams and Ronnie Thornton are active and productive, and SSs Justin Wilson and Chico Hunter will need to be effective in run support.
Edge: Middle Tennessee

Middle Tennessee pass offense vs. Southern Miss pass defense: Dasher is a better runner than passer, but he still is effective throwing the ball. His mobility helps him keep plays alive, and he throws well on the move. MTSU has an extremely deep receiving corps, but there is no true go-to guy. Patrick Honeycutt and Chris McClover are the guys to watch. Southern Miss has struggled against the pass this season and was especially porous in the last third of the season, giving up at least 337 yards in three of its final four regular-season games. FS Eddie Hicks is the star in the secondary. He has five picks and 60 tackles. Getting pressure on Dasher is important, but it's also important for Southern Miss pass rushers to not get past Dasher on their rush; when that happens, the front of the pocket opens up and he will run. E Cordarro Law is Southern Miss' best pass rusher.
Edge: Middle Tennessee

NEW ORLEANS BOWL

WHEN: 8:30 p.m., Sunday
WHERE: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
TV: ESPN (Dave Lamont will do play-by-play, with J.C. Pearson as the analyst).
THE LINE: Southern Miss by 3.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Middle Tennessee 0-2, Southern Miss 2-2.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Middle Tennessee 118th, Southern Miss 103rd.
BCS RANKINGS: Neither is ranked.
COACHES: Middle Tennessee - Rick Stockstill (0-1 in bowls); Southern Miss - Larry Fedora (1-0 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The potential exists for a lot of points, which would make for an entertaining game - especially if you don't care who wins. Besides, this should be more exciting that the Carolina-Minnesota NFL game during the same time slot. Plus, Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora - disgusted by his kickers' lack of success on extra-point attempts - has said he might go for two after every touchdown. He was joking - we think.
KEY STATS: Middle Tennessee leads the nation in tackles for loss with 93; that's 8.8 per game. The Blue Raiders have had at least 10 tackles for loss in each of their past four games and five of their past six. The Golden Eagles are eighth in the nation in kick returns (26.1 yards per return) and 30th in punt returns (11.72). Tracy Lampley is a threat to go all the way on both kick and punt returns, and Freddie Parham is a dangerous kick returner.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Southern Miss senior RB Damion Fletcher has rushed for 937 yards; he is 63 shy of becoming just the eighth player in major college history to have four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He has reached at least 63 yards in four of the past nine games. Middle Tennessee junior QB Dwight Dasher is 47 rushing yards short of 1,000 for the season, which would make him just the seventh major-college quarterback in history to throw for 2,000 and rush for 1,000 in the same season.
Southern Miss run offense vs. Middle Tennessee run defense: Fletcher and backup Tory Harrison are a nice 1-2 punch at running back, and QB Martevious Young also can run. Southern Miss has run for at least 163 yards in six of its past seven games, thanks to an experienced and aggressive offensive line. MTSU's run-defense stats were solid in the last half of the season, but none of those opponents had any runners like Fletcher. LBs Danny Carmichael and Cam Robinson have combined for 191 tackles.
Edge: Southern Miss

Southern Miss pass offense vs. Middle Tennessee pass defense: Young started the season as the backup but was pressed into starting duty when Austin Davis was lost for the season in Game 5. Young has played well, throwing for 1,574 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception in his seven games as the starter. Sophomore WR DeAndre Brown has a ton of talent, but he hasn't been 100 percent this season; he broke his leg in last season's New Orleans Bowl victory over Troy and has been bothered by nagging injuries this season. Still, he is the Golden Eagles' leading receiver. There are some solid complementary receivers, too, most notably Gerald Baptiste and Quentin Pierce. TE Leroy Banks is a weapon, and Fletcher is a good receiver out of the backfield. MTSU has allowed just 13 TD passes and have come up with 17 interceptions, including seven by Marcus Udell, who is the nickelback. CB Alex Suber and FS Jeremy Kellem were all-conference selections. There's no question the secondary is helped by an active front four. MTSU leads the nation in tackles for loss and is fourth in sacks. E Chris McCoy has seven sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. Carmichael and Robinson have been effective on blitzes. Southern Miss has allowed just 16 sacks, and Young's mobility helps in that regard.
Edge: Southern Miss

Middle Tennessee special teams vs. Southern Miss special teams: MTSU's coverage and return units are merely adequate; the Blue Raiders have allowed a punt-return TD and a kick-return TD this season, and that bears watching against Southern Miss. MTSU has blocked three punts this season. K Alan Gendreau is 18-of-21 on field-goal attempts, including 3-for-5 from at least 40 yards. P David DeFatta gets good height on his kicks, though he doesn't have a particularly strong leg. Freddie Parham and Tracy Lampley are dangerous return men for Southern Miss, and the Golden Eagles' coverage teams also have been excellent this season. K Justin Estes is 10-of-13, but six of his makes and nine of his attempts have been between 20 and 29 yards. Plus, Southern Miss kickers have missed 10 extra-point attempts. Freshman P Peter Boehme has been solid and has dropped more than 50 percent of his kicks inside the 20.
Edge: Southern Miss

Middle Tennessee coaches vs. Southern Miss coaches: Rick Stockstill hired former Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin in the offseason, and the move has paid off for MTSU. Dasher has been one of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks, and the passing attack has been solid despite injuries and the lack of a legit No. 1 receiver. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz runs an aggressive unit, and he also has done a nice job with a revamped linebacker corps. Fedora and offensive coordinator Darrell Wyatt have the Southern Miss offense humming even without Davis; their work with Young kept the season afloat. Fedora and his staff get a lot of notice for their recruiting, but this is a solid staff when it comes to Xs and Os, too.
Edge: Southern Miss

X-factor: A big play - or two - in the return game by Southern Miss would be big. The Golden Eagles have gotten big returns at key times this season, and a big game from Lampley and/or Parham would go a long way toward helping the Golden Eagles to their fifth bowl win in the past six seasons.

Middle Tennessee will win if: The Blue Raiders carry a six-game winning streak into the bowl, and in those six wins, MTSU forced 17 turnovers. That must continue, as a smallish defensive front is going to have problems with Southern Miss' big offensive line. One problem: Like MTSU, Southern Miss is plus-11 in turnovers, and actually has turned it over five fewer times than the Blue Raiders.

Southern Miss will win if: Controlling the ball and the clock with the run will be important for the Golden Eagles. This is not a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team, but the Golden Eagles do have the line to be able to mash the Blue Raiders. Southern Miss' defense likely is going to have some problems with Dasher, so keeping him off the field is important.

EXPERT PICKS
Olin Buchanan: Southern Miss 41, Middle Tennessee 35
Tom Dienhart: Middle Tennessee 35, Southern Miss 34
David Fox: Southern Miss 35, Middle Tennessee 31
Mike Huguenin: Southern Miss 28, Middle Tennessee 23
Steve Megargee: Southern Miss 31, Middle Tennessee 24

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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