2009 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Preview
Southern Mississippi (7-5, 5-3; Conference USA) vs. Middle Tennessee State (9-3, 7-1; Sun Belt)
December 20th, 2009 @ 8:30 PM (EST) – ESPN – New Orleans, Louisiana
The New Orleans Bowl has become a pre-Christmas tradition since its inception in 2001. This will be the 9th renewal of the game that pits the Sun Belt against Conference USA. The nominal tie-in from the Sun Belt is the conference champion but this year’s Sun Belt representative is the league runner up as the conference struck a deal to match its champion with a more prestigious opponent.
Southern Mississippi will represent Conference USA in the New Orleans Bowl for a record 4th time in its short history. This season will tie them with North Texas for the most appearances in the Crescent City since the first New Orleans Bowl. That’s a good sign for the Golden Eagles because they’re 3-0 in their previous three showings! The most recent was last year’s overtime victory against Troy, which was also Head Coach Larry Fedora’s first postseason appearance and victory. Fedora is now 14-11 in his two years at the helm after his team won four of their last six games to clinch a winning record.
USM built their season on the strength of the 19th rated scoring offense in the country, averaging 33 points per game. That strong finish included a ranking of 26th on the ground and 44th in passing. This is not a surprise as tailback Damion Fletcher has been a workhorse for all four years of his college career and should surpass the 1,000 yard mark for the 4th straight year in this game. The big surprise for the Eagles was at quarterback, where things looked bleak after star sophomore Austin Davis suffered a season ending injury in a loss to UAB. However, Martevious Young swooped in and led the team to a 4-3 finish while functioning as a dual threat signal caller. Finally, the feel good story of the game should be sophomore DeAndre Brown, who led the team in receiving despite suffering a gruesome leg injury in last year’s New Orleans Bowl. He is back to full health and that means that USM has one of the country’s best playmakers at their disposal. This is a very dangerous offense.
While the Golden Eagle offense was ringing up points, their defense was no better than average, finishing 54th in scoring defense at 24.5 points per game allowed. They were quite solid against the run (33rd nationally) but teams ate them alive through the air as they finished an unbelievably bad 112th against the pass. When there’s that big of a disparity, it seems like teams didn’t bother to run the ball because they knew they could move it through the air. That’s not a good sign going into this game.
Middle Tennessee State is completing the best season since the school moved to the D-1A level a decade ago. Rick Stockstill is in his 4th season as the head coach of the Blue Raiders and this is his 2nd year that has culminated with a bowl berth. During his tenure, MTSU is 26-23, though they did lose in their lone bowl appearance. Stockstill’s team finished the year with a vengeance, winning their last six games by an average margin of 22 points!
That was thanks largely to the efforts of new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, whose system produced an average of 31.2 points per game, good for 29th in the country! Franklin’s spread was extremely balanced and MTSU finished 41st in passing and 34 th in rushing! That’s a major improvement from last year’s 22 point average which was the major culprit behind their losing season. Quarterback Dwight Dasher was a perfect fit for Franklin’s system, throwing for 2,627 yards and 21 touchdowns while leading the team in rushing with 953 yards and 11 scores. Dasher’s abilities drive a very dangerous offense. In fact, MTSU’s only flaw this season was turnovers as they coughed the ball up 20 times.
However, those ball protection failings were more than compensated for by a solid defense than forced opponents into 31 giveaways, giving MTSU the 9th best turnover margin in America. Their defense also did a good job keeping opponents off of the board, finishing 45th in scoring defense while allowing only 23 points per game. The Blue Raiders were decent against both the run (50th nationally) and pass (54th) but their greatest strength was the opportunism that forced 17 interceptions and recovered 14 fumbles.
One important note in previewing this game: Don’t judge the two teams by their records. While Southern Mississippi has a lesser 7-5 mark, they faced four bowl-bound teams this year along with three bowl-less BCS conference opponents. USM only finished with a 1-3 record against winning teams and a 1-2 record against BCS conference opponents but they were significantly more tested than Middle Tennessee State. That’s because MTSU only faced two teams with winning records this season and lost both games. While they also managed a 1-2 record against BCS conference foes, their big winning streak to close the year came against a bunch of also-rans who are sitting home for the postseason. Edge: Southern Mississippi.
This game has all of the makings of a classic shootout. Both teams have productive offenses and are going up against two defenses that were average during the season and will probably be below average tackling after the layoff. That also means that turnovers are going to be at a premium since both teams are ranked in the top ten in the country in turnover margin. However, Middle Tennessee State has turned the ball over more this year against a weaker schedule and that leads me to believe that the opportunistic Golden Eagle defense will take advantage. In a game that will feature a lot of points, look for a late MTSU turnover to decide the game and Southern Mississippi will win their 2nd consecutive New Orleans Bowl.
New Orleans Bowl Pick: Southern Mississippi 37, Middle Tennessee State 34
by Matt Baxendell
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