MOBILE, Ala. — The University of South Alabama football program was not eligible to win the Sun Belt Conference championship in 2012 while concluding a two-year transition to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level. But as a reward for the student-athletes and coaches who knew that playing in a bowl game was not a possibility this fall, the Jaguars added a 13th game to the schedule a few years ago.
That contest — at Hawai’i on Saturday — will kick off at 10 p.m. (CST), wrapping up the season for the Jags.
While head coach Joey Jones and the rest of the program have always viewed the trip as a bowl game experience, both USA coordinators are quick to remind everyone that there is still business to be taken care of.
“I think one of the things we have to make sure we are good at this week is monitoring the maturity level of the team with the travel, the long trip, the changing of the schedule and being in a place like Waikiki Beach,” explained offensive coordinator Robert Matthews. “Certainly it’s a place where most of the guys on our team have not been before so they are going to see some sights and it will be a life-changing experience for them. While they are excited about being able to go and see a place like Hawai’i, they need to understand that we are going to play a football game; that’s our ultimate job, to go there, play the game and get a victory.
“Making sure our team is mature and that they handle it the right way — which I’m sure they will — is real important for us.”
“We’re going to see their maturity level,” added Bill Clark, USA’s defensive coordinator. “Can you go do these things, have some down time and still be about your business? We have a lot of guys who have been through the wars, but they haven’t been through this though. It will be interesting to see how they handle the long travel, the different time zone and one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
Offensively, USA (2-10) enters the season finale coming off a 414-yard performance at Louisiana-Lafayette; that was the second-highest total recorded by the unit this year. Ross Metheny — who was 27-of-44 for a school game-record 360 yards in the contest — has thrown for 2,037 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, completing 178-of-321 attempts. Jeremé Jones and Bryant Lavender are his top targets overall with 44 and 40 catches, respectively, with the former recording five receptions for 59 yards and a score against the Ragin’ Cajuns. Last time out, though, it was sophomore tight end Wes Saxton who paced the squad with a career-high seven catches for 83 yards; in the last four weeks, he has 17 receptions for 224 yards.
Corey Besteda and T.J. Glover both have 25 catches on the season — Besteda has 388 yards and two touchdowns, both the second-higest totals on the squad — and Greg Hollinger has supplied 22 receptions after grabbing three for 60 yards in the ULL contest. And, Gabe Loper has 13 catches for 249 yards, which includes a 28-yard touchdown reception midway through the fourth quarter for the team’s final points last week.
The Jags are averaging 215 yards per game through the air and 347.3 overall entering play; USA has surpassed that total offense figure in six of the last seven outings.
Although the Jaguars allowed over 500 yards to the Ragin’ Cajun offense, the unit still stands second in the Sun Belt Conference allowing 380.7 yards per contest. Senior linebacker Jake Johnson paces the league with 122 total stops and is also in the top five with 14 tackles for loss — he had a team-best nine tackles at ULL, the second straight game and seventh time this fall that he has paced the Jags in the category. Fellow linebacker Enrique Williams is one stop shy of joining Johnson with triple digits in the category, while B.J. Scott stands third on the squad with 72 tackles.
Alex Page is third in the league with a team-high six sacks and is ranked in the top 10 with 11½ stops behind the line of scrimmage — the junior has been credited with 62 tackles overall — and Tyrell Pearson is in the top 10 in the SBC with three interceptions and 13 total passes defended, with the junior-college transfer adding 39 stops.
Michel Chapuseaux was selected the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week for the second time this fall after making a career-high-tying three field goals in last weekend’s game; with 20 on the year — a total that leads the Sun Belt — he is two shy of equaling the league record. Glover is one of two individuals ranked in the top five in the conference in both punt (second, 8.8 ypr) and kickoff (fourth, 24.0 ypr) returns, and Scott Garber is averaging 39.8 yards per punt with 13 downed inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.
Last weekend, the Warriors (2-9) snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 48-10 victory over UNLV in their final Mountain West Conference contest of the season. Although UH enters this game allowing 391.6 yards per outing — a figure that includes over 200 per contest on the ground — it gave up only 203 total to the Rebels; UNLV converted just 1-of-15 (6.7%) on third downs and held the ball for only 25 minutes and 36 seconds.
John Hardy-Tuliau and Art Laurel paced the team with six stops apiece in the win, with the former intercepting a pair of passes — one of which he returned 38 yards for a score — to be named the league’s Defensive Player of the Week. Marrell Jackson leads the Warriors with 54 stops, and Paipai Falemalu is second one behind him; the latter’s total includes nine tackles for loss and four sacks. Beau Yap has a team-leading 9½ stops behind the line, while Tavita Woodward paces UH with 4½ sacks.
“They are a pressure defense, they try to create pressure situations on the quarterback and try to pressure your run game,” observed Matthews. “It’s based out of a 3-5 [formation], and they are using multiple fronts and multiple coverages; they really just try to create confusion up front, give your quarterback different looks and wreck your run game with movement and blitzes.”
Sean Schroeder (165-of-323, 1,747 yds, 10 TDs) threw for 201 yards and a score in the UNLV win, as UH built a 41-0 advantage while recording 340 yards of total offense. Will Gregory (122-622, 3 TDs) and Joey Iosefa (111-366, 4 TDs) both gained over 50 yards and had a rushing touchdown, with Iosefa also catching a seven-yard pass for a score as part of a 24-point outburst in the second quarter.
Billy Ray Stutzmann (30-359) and Jeremiah Ostrowski (27-270, 1 TD) are the team’s top two receivers.
“It’s like the trip, it’s a great experience,” Clark said of facing a unit run by Warrior head coach Norm Chow. “Of course, these are the things that keep coaches up at night, going against a guy who has been at Southern Cal and with the [Tennessee] Titans. And that’s who they are; it’s a pro-style offense. That has been a point of interest for our players given his history and how well he has done as a coordinator.
“They came into their own last week and scored a lot of points. They have played against a lot of great opponents their first year he has been running the program, so I hope they are not hitting their stride right now.”
UH also features a potent return game, with Mike Edwards running back three kickoffs for a score while averaging 30.4 yards per return and Scott Harding recording 13.1 yards per punt return. Alex Dunnachie has an average of 46 yards per punt — 19 of his 47 kicks have covered 50 yards or more — while Tyler Hadden leads the team in scoring with 57 points after connecting on a pair of field goals against the Rebels.
Officially, the Jaguars will not end the 2012 campaign with a bowl game, but for a program in transition they are facing the closest experience to one to end the regular season.