The questions were only natural. How would Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis respond after missing the majority of 2009 and all of spring practice with a foot injury?
Slowly at first. But now Davis is playing his best ball of the season, and it is coming at the right time, with the Beef 'O' Brady’s Bowl against Louisville set for Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Everyone played better toward the end of the year,” Davis said in a phone interview. “I’m more comfortable with the guys. You play more games, you get better. You can’t substitute game experience.”
Davis has had plenty of that, even though he missed the final eight games of last season with a ligament tear. In 2008, he became the first freshman to start in his first game since 1991 and is very close to breaking the school career records for passing yards, passing touchdowns, 200-yard passing games and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.
He needs two more passing touchdowns to pass Lee Robert and Brett Favre into first place on the career touchdowns list with 53.
Davis was able to stay healthy this season despite some foot pain, but many of his teammates were not, and that accounted for some of the early struggles. Top receiver DeAndre Brown was hampered all season, and only played in five games. The running backs were also banged up. Kendrick Hardy, Tracy Lampley and V.J. Floyd all got starts this season. The offensive line also had to break in four new starters, so it took a while for everyone to find a rhythm.
“I think Austin played himself back into being comfortable,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. “You don’t know how the guy is going to respond. Initially early maybe he was trying to do too much.
“Some of that had to do with some of the injuries we had earlier. You’re dealing with different skill players every week, so there wasn’t continuity with him and those guys. The timing was not always as good. We found the comfort zone offensively in what we liked and what we had confidence in and gradually our guys got better.”
Indeed, Southern Miss scored 40-plus points in seven of its last eight games. But two of those were critical one-point losses to East Carolina and UAB. Because Southern Miss beat eventual East Division champion UCF, wins in those games would have gotten the Golden Eagles into the C-USA title game.
The UAB loss in double overtime was particularly galling because the Blazers ended the season 4-8. Davis has had a hard time of letting go of those losses, knowing how much they ended up costing Southern Miss.
“There were a couple of plays in those games that I know I made mistakes that keep me up at night,” Davis said. “I feel if I could have done something different, we might have won that game and ended up playing in the championship. You never know what play is going to make a difference. We just have to learn, come out focused and ready to play with intensity in every game. Once we mature to the point we can do that, we’ll find ourselves in the conference championships.”
Despite the disappointment of those two games, Southern Miss is in a bowl game for the ninth straight season and has won eight games for the first time since 2006.
Davis was selected to the C-USA second-team and needs just 102 yards to go over 3,000 yards this season. He will be the only Southern Miss quarterback to go over 3,000 yards passing in a season. Plus, he is also a threat to run, ranking third on the team in rushing with 436 yards on 132 carries and 10 touchdowns.
With many of the skill players returning in 2011, this bowl game could be a big momentum booster. And it will all start with Davis.
“For us to win 10, 11, 12 games a year from now, we’ve got to start out the season with him playing like he’s playing now,” Anderson said. “That is not easy to do. His focus level and preparation over spring and summer is going to be tailored toward that.”