Back Matchup Breakdown: ULM at Southern Miss

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Matchup Breakdown: ULM at Southern Miss

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Here is where Matt Viator’s squad has the greatest matchup advantage in each facet of the game.

After a shaky week one performance from ULM, it’s easy to forget that this team was the sexiest pick in the Sun Belt, outside the big three, going into the season. Still, a win is a win is a win.

This week two battle with Southern Miss will be more of an accurate barometer as to whether or not the Warhawks are legitimately a threat to Arkansas State in the West or merely a fun offense with little else to speak of.

Here is where Matt Viator’s squad has the greatest matchup advantage in each facet of the game:

OFFENSE

Last year the Golden Eagles had one of the better defenses in the entire country, and it absolutely shut down the Warhawks’ otherwise extremely potent attack. Only managing to score 17 points, it was their lowest point total against a non-Power Five team all season. With Racheem Boothe and Jeremy Sangster back, the group will again boast one of the better linebacking corps in C-USA, but only one other starter returns on the entire defense, DE Ladarius Harris.

Conversely, ULM brought back the 9th most offensive production in the country, notably including quarterback Caleb Evans and two of his top three receivers, Marcus Green and RJ Turner.

Those two could have a field day against a secondary that appears to be in total rebuild mode.

Even last year, as good as that Southern Miss defense was, it was the run stopping ability that made everything go. They ultimately ranked 83rd in the FBS in pass defense S&P+ (http://www.footballstudyhall.com/2015/2/9/8001137/college-football-advanced-stats-glossary#pgh/24/5526), with an allowed 39% success rate (53rd) and 1.44 IsoPPP (66th). That was before before they lost every single starter and all but one meaningful contributor from 2017, too.

Comparatively, Caleb Evans and company ranked 23rd in passing S&P+, with a 46.4% success rate (15th) and 1.56 IsoPPP (36th).

Even after the departure of Brian Williams, seven pass catchers return that had a catch rate at or above the national average, five of which averaged more than 13.7 yards per reception and at least 8.6 yards per target (which were the respective averages in those categories). All five of those had an above average success rate, as well as marginal success rate (the difference between one’s efficiency and the expected efficiency, based on down, distance, and field position), and three of those five -- Green, Turner, and running back Derrick Gore -- exceeded the national average in marginal explosiveness.

The efficiency was there last week against SE Louisiana, but ULM struggled to manufacture as many big plays as they are capable of. More long gainers will go a long way in week two. Nonetheless, it would be a surprise if the Warhawks don’t eat that inexperienced secondary up all day.

DEFENSE

There’s really not a ton good to say about Louisiana-Monroe on this side of the ball. Fortunately for them, there isn't much going on for the opposing offense, either, outside of taking advantage of scoring opportunities when they arose. It was moderately explosive, too, but those numbers should take a big step back without their top two playmakers from 2017, Ito Smith and Korey Robertson.

Their run game should have been better, but the offensive line play was just abysmal. Curiously, it was, simultaneously, elite in pass pro. There’s enough coming back up there to expect more of the same. That could indicate that ULM’s best potential advantage would be against the run, but that’s tough to say about a squad that ranked in the bottom five in the FBS in run defense S&P+. For that reason, the best bet is probably stopping Southern Miss’ underneath passing game.

Regardless of who was behind center last season -- both Kwadra Griggs and Keon Howard saw their fair share of snaps -- the passing game was terrible, finishing 114th in S&P+ with a 36.3% success rate (103rd). The only saving grace was Robertson’s big play ability. He took his talents to the NFL and with them, the Golden Eagles’ only legitimate big play threat. The team had good IsoPPP numbers in 2017. That seems unlikely to hold.

ULM does have some talent in the secondary. Now-seniors Wesley Thompson, Rhoy Williams, and Marcus Hubbard all allowed negative marginal explosiveness ratings. Luke Hedrick, Nick Ingram, and Collin Turner are all also back after being bitten by the injury bug last fall. With Hubbard and Williams back at their natural corner spots, marked improvement could be in the cards.

Any sort of pass rush help would go a long way this season, but don’t expect that to start against Southern Miss’ offensive line. It’ll be up to the defensive backs in this one. It is imperative Mike Collins stay aggressive and force Griggs to beat them downfield. Without Robertson, there’s no obvious guy that can do that consistently. Perhaps Quez Watkins could fill that role, but he was pretty unreliable as a freshman. This hardly a strength versus a weakness, but as long as ULM’s pass defense is less weak than Southern Miss’ passing attack, the outcome is the same.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Has anything ever been so obvious? Southern Miss ranked 91st in kickoff success rate last season with freshman Zac Everett tallying just 36 touchbacks on 72 attempts.

Meanwhile, arguably the best return man in the country will be fielding the ball for ULM. Marcus Green averaged the fourth most yards per return in the FBS in 2017, tied for the most touchdowns, and, as a team, the Warhawks ranked 14th in success rate.

Not they need them, but that offense could have more than a few short fields on Saturday.

At the end of the day, this figures to be a shootout. It feels lazy to say that it could come down to whoever has the ball last, but that’s probably going to legitimately be the case in most of ULM’s games this year.

Don’t expect this to be anything like last year’s showing in which the teams combined for just 45 points. It’s honestly more likely that both teams score 45 points.

Caleb Evans and Marcus Green ought to torch that under-construction secondary, but it’s just impossible to trust the Warhawks’ defense to get any key stops. If the latter starts to change even a little bit, Louisiana-Monroe figures to factor into the Sun Belt title race, though.

Saturday will be their first chance to prove that those steps are being taken.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP