ST. PETERSBURG — Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis comes from a baseball family, so there is a significance to playing a football game on a baseball field for the 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior.
"I grew up playing baseball," said Davis, who won a state championship in Mississippi his senior year of high school and had scholarship offers to continue at the college level. His brother, Bo, helped the Golden Eagles to the College World Series in 2009, and his cousin Jason Smith spent nine years in the majors as an infielder, including two seasons with the Rays on the same Tropicana Field field Davis will be throwing on in Tuesday's Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl against Louisville.
Since coming to Southern Miss as a walk-on in 2007, Davis has focused on football. He has thrown for 2,898 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, and rushed for 436 yards and 10 scores, leading a spread offense that has averaged 37 points per game. Despite missing eight games as a sophomore because of a foot injury, he is closing in on many of Brett Favre's school career records. He needs two touchdown passes to give him a school-record 53 and 498 passing yards to break another mark. He has the school's total offense record (8,198 yards and counting).
Davis has had at least 300 yards of total offense in five of his past six games, including a wild game against Houston in which he threw for 293 yards and two scores while running for a career-high 111 yards and four scores in a 59-41 victory. He has accounted for 19 touchdowns in the second half of the season, and in the Golden Eagles' only losses in that span, he led the offense to 49 and 50 points, respectively, against Alabama-Birmingham and Tulsa.
"It just creates another dimension that makes defenses have to account for him," offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said of Davis' running ability. "I wouldn't say he's a tremendously good runner, but he's adequate, and he can hurt you in a way that makes you account for it."
Anderson said Davis' maturation has come on the mental side, in his preparation and understanding of the offense, and he has been careful to limit turnovers. He ranks fifth in Conference USA in passing yards, but the four quarterbacks ahead of him had at least 10 interceptions each. Davis threw six in the regular season.
"He's extremely good with preparation, probably the best I've had in 20 years of coaching," Anderson said. "He's almost like a coach on the field, but his biggest attribute is the ability to not put the ball in harm's way during the game. He's okay with throwing the ball away when he needs to. He doesn't typically put the ball into bad situations, and he makes you feel comfortable his decision-making is going to be good enough to give you a chance to win every game."
Southern Miss hasn't faced many defenses like what it will see from Louisville, which ranks 12th in Division I-A in total defense and is allowing an average 18.7 points per game. The Golden Eagles faced one top 50 defense in the regular season but scored 31 points in beating a UCF team now ranked 18th in total defense.
"From the time I put the film on, I was impressed with everything they do," Davis said of Louisville. "They play hard, they play fast, they have a really good scheme. It'll definitely be a big challenge."