October 5, 2010 6:06:00 AM
HATTIESBURG -- Nearly every day, Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said a fan will approach and ask him why his team''s defense is suddenly so impressive.
But the third-year coach insists there''s been no magic potion or schematic adjustment that''s made the Golden Eagles one of the early title contenders in Conference USA.
"We''re doing the same things that we believed in from the start, but our guys are just growing up," Fedora said. "They''ve grown into the system and understand it and have got confidence. They trust each other and they''re having fun playing the game. That''s the way it should be. It should be fun."
After two seasons of frustration, the Southern Miss defense is rolling going into Saturday''s crucial Conference USA game against East Carolina at Roberts Stadium. During its current four-game winning streak, the Golden Eagles are giving up less than 13 points per game.
That''s a huge change from the past two seasons, when Southern Miss was known as its explosive offense and sometimes suspect defense. At one time, it looked like defensive coordinator Todd Bradford''s job status might even be in question -- especially considering Southern Miss built much of its success in the 1990s and 2000s on gritty defense under former coach Jeff Bower.
But Bradford has turned things around.
"They didn''t like how it was going and I didn''t like how it was going," Bradford said. "As a group of young men they decided to do the things that it takes to be successful."
The new-look defense will undoubtedly be tested when Southern Miss (4-1, 1-0 Conference USA) faces East Carolina (2-2, 2-0) on Saturday at Roberts Stadium. New East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill, who was formally the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, brought much of the Red Raiders'' pass-happy offensive staff with him to East Carolina.
The Pirates are already putting up big offensive numbers, scoring 36 points per game and leading C-USA in passing yards.
But McNeill said Southern Miss'' experience will make things difficult.
"They have nine returning starters and a lot of speed and athleticism," McNeill said. "They also have good size up front. A lot of those kids, I remember we liked watching them on film even before I came to East Carolina. The state of Mississippi has been a recruiting area where Ole Miss and Mississippi State get a lot of players, but Southern Miss hangs around and gets a lot of really, really special football players."
The Golden Eagles'' defense has been well balanced, thriving off big plays and stopping the run. They have the best rushing defense in C-USA, giving up 103.8 yards per game, and rank second in passing defense (178.8 yards per game).
They''re tied for third with 12 sacks. Five different players have at least three tackles for a loss.
Defensive tackle Terrance Pope leads the team with five tackles for a loss and two sacks. Veteran linebackers Martez Smith, Korey Williams and Ronnie Thornton have all been productive, with the strength to stuff the running game and the speed to help in pass defense.
In the secondary, safety Justin Wilson has intercepted two passes. Cornerback Deron Wilson has six pass breakups.
"We''re playing with a lot of swagger out there and it shows," Thornton said.
Ten out of the 11 starters are juniors or seniors, and all of them remember last year''s emotional 25-20 loss to East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. The loss knocked Southern Miss out of a chance to play in the Conference USA title game.
The Pirates went on to win their second of back-to-back C-USA titles.
Now, with its improved defense in tow, the Golden Eagles believe its their time.
"We were so close (last year) and then it slipped away," Thornton said. "It''s going to drive us for this game."