NCAA FB

Defense sparks No. 25 Southern Miss win streak

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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP)

Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora bounded off the practice field with a wide grin on his face, joking with players and slapping them on the back as the Golden Eagles made their way toward the locker room.

These are good times at Southern Miss. - the Golden Eagles are on a seven-game winning streak and are back in the Top 25 for the first time in seven years.

Fedora admits he has little to complain about.

''I was trying to think of the last time I wasn't really happy with a practice,'' Fedora said. ''That was a long, long time ago.''

No. 25 Southern Miss (8-1, 5-1 Conference USA) has a clear path to the C-USA Eastern Division title if the Golden Eagles can win their final three games - starting with Central Florida (4-5, 2-3) on Saturday at Roberts Stadium.

The Golden Eagles have shown a knack for big plays during the winning streak. They had four non-offensive touchdowns during last week's 48-28 victory over East Carolina, including two interception returns, one punt return and one punt block return.

The Southern Miss defense - which has been a liability in past years - is suddenly the strongest unit on the team. The Golden Eagles are giving up just 19.6 points per game, which ranks second in C-USA.

That's in large part to an opportunistic pass defense that's come up with 13 interceptions and returned five of those for touchdowns.

''Every time we touch the ball these days, we feel like we're going to score,'' cornerback Deron Wilson said. ''That's the difference between a good defensive player and a great defensive player - doing something with the ball in your hands once you get it.''

Wilson, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound sophomore from New Orleans, has two interceptions this season while fellow cornerback Marquese Wheaton has three. Both have returned one for a touchdown.

While Wilson is in his second year as a starter, Wheaton, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior from Phoenix, has thrived in an increased role after playing most of last season a backup.

''Early in the season I wasn't getting many balls my way because they were trying to pick on Marquese,'' Wilson said. ''But now he's shown he makes plays. So who you gonna throw to now? You've got to throw it somewhere. Pick your poison.''

Fedora said it's been fun to watch his defense become more confident. He said the momentum and confidence they've gained is just as important as their athletic ability.

''There's truth to that,'' Fedora said. ''You get that drop of blood in the water and the sharks start coming. Our guys feed off that stuff. They get excited and the blood gets flowing. It makes the game so much more fun.''

Southern Miss has adapted quickly to the new 4-2-5 defensive scheme that co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch installed after coming to the Golden Eagles from Illinois. Wilson said the clean slate in the offseason tightened everyone's focus.

''It really made us concentrate in the film room,'' Wilson said. ''We're not just learning our position, but also what the person next to you is doing. There's a lot more understanding of what everyone's job is and that makes us move as one.''

Now the Golden Eagles are just two wins away from their first 10-win season since 1988. There's also a possible showdown with Houston in the Conference USA championship game looming if both teams take care of business.

But Wilson said he's trying not to think too far ahead.

''We're human, so we occasionally talk about it,'' Wilson said. ''But the reality is there's a lot of football left. We're going to stay hungry.''

---

Follow David Brandt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

Tagged: Southern Mississippi, Deron Wilson, Marquese Wheaton

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