Conference USA is coming to Baton Rouge in the form of the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. Despite being 4-2 overall, the Eagles likely enter the game a bit psychologically wounded after losing a 55-32 contest to UTSA, which saw UTSA up 28-7 after just one quarter. Despite the blowout, this USM team is one of the better offenses in the nation, after a phenomenal 2015 campaign.
Quarterback Nick Mullens
Mullens had a great 2015 season, averaging 319 yards per game, good for ninth nationally, and 38 passing TD’s, tied for 4th in the nation with Washington State’s Luke Falk. He was named first team C-USA during the preseason and this season has 16 touchdowns on 1874 yards passing.
What could cause problem
When plays are developing the way they are supposed to, Mullens can absolutely shred a defense. It looks like he is very active at the line of scrimmage, barking out protections and audible to his teammates. He has a very quick release and excels on making the short passes where the receiver can pick up yards after the catch. If the defense isn’t sound in its coverage, Mullens will find a way to exploit any weaknesses for a big play.
USM will also use Mullens on a few rushing plays per game and is quick enough to pick up a bit of yardage if the defense fails to account for him.
What can be exploited and how
Although Mullens has impressive passer totals, his throws can leave something to be desired. In particular, his accuracy on deeper passes is not very good. Part of this has to do with an apparent lack of arm strength. Many of his longer passes tend to float or end of being overthrown, likely because he has difficulty generating enough velocity on the pass to hit the receiver in stride on the deeper throws. He also has a bit of a tendency to make up his mind to throw the ball to a certain spot even if it isn't the best decision.
LSU’s secondary should have plenty of opportunities to force turnovers against Mullens. The key to this is taking away lots of the underneath stuff. Mullens best throws come on screens, slants and other short passes that don’t require a ton of thinking on post-snap reads. There are two benefits to Mullens hold onto the ball more. First, his lack of ability to throw the ball deep could mean some inaccurate passes leading to interceptions. Additionally, Mullens doesn't have great pocket presence, giving Arden Key and others time to bring him down.
Center Cameron Tom
Tom has been durable and reliable during his time at USM. He has started in 41 consecutive games , is on both the Rimington and Outland watch list, and has twice been named first team C-USA.
What could cause problems
Tom is pretty mobile for an offensive lineman. Most impressive is how well he moves up field to take on blockers at the second level. Not only does he move with relative ease, but he has solid awareness to actually locate the defender. In pass protection, Tom has easy lateral movement skills and quickly can readjust himself to aid his offensive linemen.
Additionally, Tom has the frame and stoutness to be sustain the blocks once he engages with the defender. He generally plays with good leverage which prevents the defensive linemen from getting push. If Tom does concede a bit to his defender, he does a nice job of resetting and keeping the defender contained.
What can be exploited and how
The most obvious part of Tom’s game is that he can over extend a bit and bend at the waist. This is most apparent when the blocker is trying to evade Tom, and instead of moving his feet Tom will lean with the defender. As for actually combating Tom, the key might rely in speed. True, he does move well but he also doesn’t always reset when the blocker redirects. Dave Aranda might be wise to create some interior blitzes with some of LSU’s faster rushers in the hope that Tom won’t be able to handle that much speed. What won’t work is having LSU’s interior linemen try to bully their way past Tom.