Jim Harris: Razorbacks Get the Unexpected

When the Arkansas Razorbacks were scheduling the University of Southern Mississippi for the 2013 football season, the Golden Eagles were in the midst of an 18-year run of winning seasons. As late as the 2011 season, when Larry Fedora was in his fourth year in Hattiesburg, Fedora’s USM squad upset unbeaten Houston and the Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin late in the season and won the Hawaii Bowl to finish 11-2.

Fedora smartly got out of town before his team was totally made up of his recruits, it seems.

Fedora focused on a constant attacking offense and talked the talk about having a ferocious defense too. The problem, according to people around the USM program, is that Fedora failed to recruit defensive players to continue to attack the opposition, spending most of his recruiting efforts on the offensive side of the ball.

Where have we heard that one before?

Ellis Johnson got his first big-time head-coaching job when Fedora bolted for North Carolina following the 2011 season. Someone inside USM took note of the declining efforts on the defensive side under Fedora and thought it smart to hire a coach with a tremendous defensive background, such as what Johnson possessed.

The Johnson era was nearly over before it started and only lasted a year.

After 18 straight winning records, USM turned in an O-fer season in 2012 — a stunning 0-12.

Johnson is now back where he should be, coordinating a defense for Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.

Razorbacks face Todd Monken

Todd Monken, left

Todd Monken, the new USM coach, follows a similar track that Fedora took the Hattiesburg, having worked for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State as the offensive coordinator. He’s supposed to be able to put points up by the bushel and outscore folks. It may take awhile for him to get the kind of players it takes to do that.

Southern Miss isn’t anywhere close to working its way out of its longest modern-day losing streak. Monken’s first two trips out of the box include a bad home loss to Texas State, a newcomer to the Football Bowl Subdivision, and a wipeout on the road at Nebraska last Saturday, 56-13.

Monken’s wide-open offense has turned the ball over 10 times in two games. The good news for the Golden Eagles, though, is that so far in two games the Arkansas Razorbacks’ defense still isn’t forcing more turnovers than the Hog offense makes — after a nation’s worst minus-19 turnover margin last season, Arkansas is minus-1 after two miscues last week to Samford’s none.

Want to know why last week’s game was closer than it needed to be or figured to be, look first at the turnover figures. Arkansas only surrendered 4.4 yards per play, run or pass, and the Razorbacks ‘ offense rushed for 333 yards. Arkansas isn’t good enough defensively on its back seven to turn the ball over more times than the opposition and win, unless the foe is Samford or, this week, Southern Miss.

The Golden Eagles of today might be the result of the program’s heavy hitting boosters being “bored” with simply winning while not looking very exciting doing that.

Again, where have we heard that one before? (I’ll give you one hint here: remember what was being said around Arkansas after two straight Cotton Bowls and Southwest Conference championships concerning then head coach Ken Hatfield, and recall what happened the next eight years in Fayetteville.)

Jeff Bower just simply won, and won a lot over his 17 years, graduating nearly 90 percent of his players and never attracting NCAA attention for recruiting irregularities. Before him, Jim Carmody and Bobby Collins built Southern Miss into a strong southern independent before Conference-USA came along and produced the occasional NFL player like Brett Favre. Those dynamic, attacking defenses once coordinated by John Thompson (now at Arkansas State) and Dave Wommack (now at Ole Miss) could give USM a chance against the powerhouses in the area — the Golden Eagles shut out Alabama in 2000 21-0 and always managed to battle the Crimson Tide — but that just wasn’t any fun by 2007 and Bower was forced out (this was the same season, incidentally, that his daughter died in a car accident during the season). His ceiling was nine wins in a year, also a thought as to why a change was needed.

Fedora didn’t disappoint in the excitement front. Ane he won, mind you, beginning with 7-6 first season as a head coach, and he built on Bower’s 14 straight years of winning records. His teams put up school record offenses each of his four seasons. The win total grew from 7 to 8 by Fedora’s third season, then to 11 in 2011. And then he was gone.

And last year, so were all the wins. Southern Miss was a train wreck. Bower was probably remembered more fondly last year, that’s for sure.

Monken has no running game, his starting quarterback is likely out and last year’s starter transferred, and the “high-octane” passing game is a work in progress with mostly short routes. There aren’t a lot of athletes in a program that just a few short years ago boasted the likes of five-star recruit D’Andre Brown at receiver. Southern Miss also always had these defensive stoppers that made everyone wonder how they’d fallen under the blue-chip recruiting radar.

In fact, when Thompson arrived at Arkansas to help Houston Nutt’s defense in 2000, he confided that he probably had only two defenders who could have played at Southern Miss at that same time..

There are many who believe he’d say the same thing about Arkansas today.

Arkansas’ defense has been a work-in-progress, it seems, since Houston Nutt left. The offense has two stars it can rely on in running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, a capable receiver in Javontee Herndon, some improving tight ends, and an offensive line that is keeping it simple so far in opening running lanes.

When Arkansas lined up this game, it was no doubt believed that Southern Miss would provide a challenge, especially defensively in light of its tradition, and that this would prepare the Hogs for Southeastern Conference play starting in two weeks.

Instead, Arkansas should be another of the run of teams that have made Southern Miss’ program followers wished they’d better appreciated what they had five years ago.

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