HATTIESBURG, Miss. — With only four returning starters, Gerald McRath figured the Southern Miss defense would struggle at times this season.

What the junior middle linebacker didn’t anticipate is the number of little mistakes that have plagued the Golden Eagles (2-2, 0-1 Conference USA) and prevented them from reaching their potential.

“There’s no question about the effort we’re getting from all 11 guys,” said McRath. “Everybody is playing hard and there’s 11 players running to the ball. The effort is there.

“What’s killing us is not being in the right gap sometimes and not having our eyes in the right place. It’s kept us from making plays and we’ve got to get it fixed.”

Southern Miss defensive coordinator Todd Bradford said the problem McRath described is not uncommon for young players with limited experience.

“We call it eye violations,” said Bradford. “The guys are looking where they shouldn’t be looking. They’ll turn their heads, and when they do, the back runs right past them. We’ve given up too many plays (because of little mistakes) and some big ones.”

The biggest “eye violation” came in the Golden Eagles’ 34-27 conference loss two weeks ago to Marshall when Thundering Herd wide receiver Darius Passmore turned a reverse into an 80-yard scoring play in the third quarter.

“It’s frustrating when a play like that happens because of a little thing,” said McRath. “It’s something you have to learn as a player and hopefully it won’t happen again.”

While little mistakes are hurting the defensive effort, so has the performance on third down. Opponents have 15 third-down conversions, including nine in the last two games, helping both Arkansas State and Marshall roll up over 400 total yards.