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Bulls’ key to victory is rushing defense

The Game: vs. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (4-1 overall; 2-0 Conference USA) 7 p.m. Saturday at Raymond James Stadium

Eagles Thus Far: USM has opened its season winning four out of five before Saturday’s game against the Bulls. The Eagles posted a 23-20 win in Week 2 vs. defending Big 10 Champion Illinois. Due to their fast start, the Golden Eagles are listed in the “others receiving votes” category in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls.

Last Meeting: Southern Miss rolled future Conference USA foe USF 41-7 in 2000. The loss came to a Golden Eagles team that was ranked 19th and went on to win the C-USA title and the Liberty Bowl.

About USM: The Golden Eagles are coming off a rather disappointing (by USM standards) 2001 season, in which they went 6-5 and lost their final two games of the regular season, keeping them out of a bowl game.

USM Offense: The offense hinges on the production from its running backs. Derrick Nix missed all of last season with kidney problems and was forced to redshirt. When healthy, however, Nix is considered by many to be the best back in C-USA and has pro scouts interested. Nix has already rushed for 618 yards in five games, averaging 123.6 yards per contest, which ranks 12th in the nation.

Sophomore quarterback Micky D’Angelo is the new signal caller for the Golden Eagles, who relied on the arm and leadership of departed quarterback Jeff Kelly for three seasons. D’Angelo has filled in well enough for Kelly, completing 52.4 percent of his passes for 857 yards, with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

D’Angelo has help from his receiving corps, which is a wealth of riches. Senior wide-out LeRoy Handy is the star and leader of the group. The All-Conference candidate is consistent, smart and has a habit of getting open and catching tough passes. Sophomore Marvin Young is a speedy big-play receiver (averaging 18.4 yards per reception) and leads the team with three touchdowns thus far, while the Johnson and Johnson team (junior Kenneth and sophomore Chris) provide depth and are effective weapons as well.

USM Defense: This is easily the strength of the Eagles. This year’s squad is faster, stronger, smarter and what’s worse, carries a chip on its shoulder after missing out on the postseason last year.

Up front the Golden Eagles are led by Terrell Paul, who is a ferocious pass rusher. Paul, first team All C-USA last year, actually plays the “Bandit” position, which is a hybrid end/linebacker spot. Junior middle linebacker Rod Davis was a first team All C-USA selection last year and is widely considered the best backer in the league.

The defense only gave up 101.5 yards rushing per game (13th nationally). The star of the defensive backfield is free safety Etric Pruitt, who already has five interceptions in just five games for the Golden Eagles.

The Skinny: Saturday’s game between the Bulls and the Golden Eagles will most likely come down to the defenses. The Bulls’ defensive unit has played exceptionally, most notably against the rush. Southern Miss will try to establish the run to wear down the Bulls’ front seven. If the Eagles can’t get the ground game going, they’ll have to go to a largely unproven quarterback.

My Pick: In a defensive battle, the Bulls shut down Nix and the Eagles’ running game and force D’Angelo to pass, thus creating turnovers from the secondary. Bulls’ home win streak will continue, and we’ll enjoy family weekend with a 21-19 South Florida victory.

Jason Davis