HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Southern Mississippi defensive back Picasso Nelson knows what it feels like to watch Kentucky’s offense embarrass the Golden Eagles’ secondary.
He also knows what it feels like to shut the Wildcats down and earn a huge road win over an opponent from the Southeastern Conference.
Southern Miss beat Kentucky 44-35 in Lexington last season , falling into a 35-10 hole during the second quarter before scoring the game’s final 34 points in a stunning comeback. It was the first time Southern Miss had beaten an SEC opponent since 2000 and ended a 13-game losing streak against the league.
Now the Golden Eagles get a chance to make it two in a row against the Wildcats. This time, Southern Miss gets to host Kentucky on Saturday at Roberts Stadium.
If all goes well, Nelson hopes an improbable 25-point comeback won’t be needed.
“You’ve got to go in just focusing on the small things,” Nelson said. “That’s what we did last year in the second half. This year, Lord willing, we can put four quarters together.”
The game represents a rare chance for Southern Miss to host an SEC opponent on its home field. Kentucky is just the second team from the league to come to Hattiesburg since 1989 — the other was Mississippi State in 2015.
Kentucky has high hopes this season after recovering from last year’s loss to Southern Miss to finish with a 7-6 overall record, including a 4-4 mark in the SEC East. Coach Mark Stoops said his program learned some valuable lessons from last year’s loss to the Golden Eagles.
“One bad thing led to another,” Stoops said. “Guys trying to do too much.”
Southern Miss enters its second year under coach Jay Hopson with several experienced playmakers. There’s running back Ito Smith, who ran for 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. There’s also receiver Allenzae Staggers, who caught 63 passes for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns.
The one big question mark is at quarterback. Junior Kwadra Griggs and sophomore Keon Howard have been locked in a quarterback competition all during preseason camp and Hopson said Monday that he expects both to play on Saturday.
Because of the uncertainty under center, the Golden Eagles likely need another big game from Smith, who ran for 173 yards and a touchdown against the Wildcats last season.
“I don’t think there’s any big secret that Ito Smith is a great football player for us and he’s going to see the ball,” Hopson said. “Ito is one of those guys who when he does have the ball, he makes things happen. You’ve got to have balance, but Ito is a key piece of the puzzle for us.”
The Southern Miss defense is led by a veteran secondary that includes Nelson and Cornell Armstrong. He said the familiarity among the returners should help against Kentucky and allow the Golden Eagles to be successful from the first play.
“We know that our guys have a feel for the game and a better understanding for the game,” Nelson said. “Instead of just running around and moving fast for no reason, there’s more poise and purpose.”