December 20, 2008

Freshman WR Brown powers Southern Miss

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

The great freshman wide receiver debate is raging in the SEC. Alabama fans will take Julio Jones. Georgia fans will take A.J. Green.

The spat surely will continue for the next three years or so.

Another school in the Southeast would like to nudge its way into the argument: Southern Miss has a true freshman receiver, and he's good, too. DeAndre Brown's impact has been just as meaningful.

NEW ORLEANS BOWL

Southern Miss (6-6)
vs. Troy (8-4)

WHEN: 8:15 p.m. Dec. 21.
WHERE: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans.
TV: ESPN (Eric Collins will do play-by-play, with Shaun King as the analyst).
THE LINE: Troy by 4.5.
RECORD VS. BOWL TEAMS: Troy 1-3, Southern Miss 1-3.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Southern Miss 92nd, Troy 102nd.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team.
COACHES: Troy − Larry Blakeney (1-1 in bowls); Southern Miss − Larry Fedora (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: We don't really know maybe you're not into the NFL Sunday night game, maybe you're tired for wrapping presents or maybe you're a compulsive gambler.
KEY STATS: Troy is excellent on both lines. The Trojans were third in the nation in tackles for loss and fourth in sacks. They also were third in the nation in fewest sacks allowed. Southern Miss forced 12 turnovers in the final four games of the season, all wins.
KEEP AN EYE ON: It's not often Southern Miss lands a five-star recruit. Wide receiver DeAndre Brown lived up to his billing with 66 catches for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"[Brown]'s become a go-to guy, and he's very talented," Southern Miss offensive coordinator Darrell Wyatt said. "He has the chance to be one of the great players at his position at this school and in this league and maybe more."

Brown wasn't the only precocious youngster. If not for freshmen, Southern Miss likely would have missed a bowl in coach Larry Fedora's first season. Thanks to a late push from Brown and redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Davis, the Golden Eagles will play in their 11th bowl game in the past 12 seasons when they meet Troy in the New Orleans Bowl on Sunday.

It didn't necessarily start that way for Brown and Southern Miss. The Eagles opened the season 2-6, including a five-game losing streak into October. Another slip-up would have meant no postseason. Even so, Brown said he was confident Southern Miss would reach a bowl.

"The whole time, we knew we were beating ourselves," Brown said. "Those games were lost by our own mistakes. We knew we weren't a bad team."

Brown caught 26 passes for 416 yards and three touchdowns in the first six games. Over the final six, Brown caught 40 passes for 692 yards and nine touchdowns. Davis improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 9-to-6 in the first half of the season to 12-to-2 in the second half.

Behind the improved Davis-Brown connection, Southern Miss rallied to win its final four games for a bowl spot.

"The big thing was timing," Brown said. "Once we got that down, it opened a lot of things up. It opened up the tight ends and good mismatches."

Coaches weren't surprised Brown elevated his play in the second half of the season. On top of being a true freshman working with a first-year quarterback, Brown carried the weight of being Southern Miss' most touted recruit ever.

"Any time you get a five-star player who has accolades of a DeAndre Brown, there's going to be pressure for instant success," Wyatt said. "We knew it would take some time to learn the offense and get timing with the quarterback. Give him credit: He was able to step up and deliver.

"I don't think he's let anyone down. He's what everyone forecasted. He can be one of the impact receivers in the college game."


Who has the edge?

Troy run offense vs. Southern Miss run defense
DuJuan Harris emerged as Troy's top back by midseason. He's just two games removed from a 234-yard, two-touchdown effort against Louisiana-Lafayette. Led by imposing LB Gerald McRath, Southern Miss did not allow a rushing touchdown or 100 rushing yards in any of the final four games of the regular season.
Edge: Even.

Troy pass offense vs. Southern Miss pass defense
QB Levi Brown took over for Troy in midseason after an injury to starter Jamie Hampton and fared well. Brown is 5-2 as a starter, with near-miss losses to LSU and Louisiana-Monroe. Jerel Jernigan is his go-to guy. Southern Miss picked off 10 passes in the final four games.
Edge: Troy.

Southern Miss run offense vs. Troy run defense
Junior RB Damion Fletcher is one of the steadiest performers in the country. He led Conference USA in rushing yards per game (112.3) and has put together three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Troy LB Boris Lee won't be intimidated after recording more than a dozen tackles in games against Ohio State and LSU. Southern Miss was 24th in the nation in rush offense.
Edge: Southern Miss.

Southern Miss pass offense vs. Troy pass defense
The connection between WR DeAndre Brown and redshirt freshman QB Austin Davis improved late in the season. TE Shawn Nelson was a good second option with 51 catches. Davis will be under constant pressure from Troy linemen Dion Gales and Brandon Lang, who combined for 15 sacks.
Edge: Southern Miss.

Troy special teams vs. Southern Miss special teams
Troy's coverage teams have been steady all season, while Southern Miss has given up chunks of yardage in the return game. Troy also has the edge in the return game. Britt Barefoot is a far better punter than he is a kicker for the Eagles. Troy's Sam Glusman is 7-of-9 on field-goal attempts between 40 and 49 yards.
Edge: Troy.

Troy coaches vs. Southern Miss coaches
Larry Blakeney has an aggressive staff. He has the youngest coordinator in the nation in offensive leader Neal Brown, but Troy still has the edge in experience. Larry Fedora will be coaching in his first bowl game as a head coach.
Edge: Troy.

X-factor: Both teams take care of the ball and force turnovers. Troy has a plus-6 turnover margin and Southern Miss is at plus-13, including a plus-8 during its current four-game winning streak.

Troy will win if: The Trojans need to limit the damage done by DeAndre Brown. The Trojans were 17th in the nation in pass efficiency defense and have the front seven to disrupt Davis.

Southern Miss will win if: The Eagles' defense has played well of late and needs to continue its hot streak. As with Southern Miss, Troy's offense really clicked at the end of the season.

The picks
David Fox: Southern Miss 31, Troy 21
Mike Huguenin: Troy 30, Southern Miss 23

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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