The novelty is gone, but the presence remains.
Sweet revenge might no longer be the obvious angle for Shannon Dawson when he faces Kentucky on Saturday in Hattiesburg, Miss., but one aspect hasn’t changed. In this matchup, the Southern Miss offensive coordinator is still the wild card.
In last year’s opener, Dawson played the winning card. Fired by Mark Stoops after one year as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, Dawson helped engineer Southern Miss’ stunning 44-35 comeback win over the Cats at Commonwealth Stadium.
Down 35-10 in the second quarter, the Golden Eagles got the rally train started with a touchdown 26 seconds before halftime, then added a TD on each of their three third-quarter possessions to take a 38-35 lead on the way to scoring 34 unanswered points.
Yes, Dawson was afforded a talented, experienced quarterback in Nick Mullens. He boasted a 1,400-yard rusher in Ito Smith. But while Kentucky knew Dawson’s play-calling tendencies, Dawson knew both Kentucky’s scheme and its personnel. Two beats one.
His greatest hit: On a key third-and-7 in the third quarter, Dawson made the perfect play call against a UK blitz with Mullens and Smith combining on a 22-yard gain to the 5-yard line which set up the visitors’ go-ahead score.
Afterward, Dawson and Stoops executed a man hug at midfield and walked arm-in-arm. Dawson said he harbored no hard feelings about his brief stay in Lexington. Let bygones be bygones. Stoops returned the favor.
“Shannon is a good football coach or I wouldn’t have hired him,” the UK coach said Monday at the first game-week news conference of the season. “Certainly proved that a year ago right here in this stadium.”
Eighteen minutes of questions and answers passed before Dawson’s name popped up. That’s the difference a year makes. One year you’re the focus, the next you’re an afterthought. By and large, Dawson’s first season in Hattiesburg was successful. Southern Miss finished 21st nationally in total offense (472.8 yards per game), 16th in passing offense (298.2 yards per game) and 41st in scoring offense (32.8 points per game). The Golden Eagles finished 7-6 after beating Louisiana 28-21 in the New Orleans Bowl.
In one sense, however, Dawson is starting all over again. Gone are Mullens and his school-record 11,994 passing yards. The Golden Eagles haven’t officially christened his replacement. Junior Kwadra Griggs is the perceived front-runner, but listed as an either/or on the depth chart with sophomore Keon Howard. USM head coach Jay Hopson indicated Monday both will play Saturday. True freshman Marcelo Rodriguez might even take some snaps.
“We played three last year,” Dawson said. “I’m not psychic so I can’t tell you that. All I know is what we did last year.”
Dawson has a pair of weapons who did plenty a year ago. Wide receiver Allenzae Staggers caught 65 passes for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns. The aforementioned Smith was 16th nationally in rushing, plus scored 19 touchdowns — 17 by ground; two by air.
Then again, Kentucky claims it is not the same team as last year, certainly not in last year’s opener. After an 0-2 start, UK went 7-3 to earn a bowl bid. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot departed for Colorado. Stoops promoted assistant Matt House to DC and went about the process of stripping down his system, then building it back up again.
“Spending a lot of time in the offseason, kind of building it to where I’m much more comfortable and much more knowledgeable the way it was built from the ground up,” said the head coach, who admits to having to do some patch work his first four seasons. “I think that has been helpful.”
What helps Southern Miss is the knowledge it can beat Kentucky. It did it last year in Lexington. No reason it can’t do it this year in the friendly confines of M.M. Roberts Stadium, better known as “The Rock.”
After all, Southern Miss still has the wild card.
Kentucky-Southern Miss statistical comparison 2016
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