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NCAAF Team Report - Florida International - INSIDE SLANT

This isn't an easy time to play Florida Atlantic. The rest of Conference USA should be leery of the Owls appearing on their schedule.

FAU is, after all, just a couple of plays away from being 3-1 in the league, not 1-3. The way it lost the Rice game, yielding a couple of touchdowns in the final four minutes, was brutal. And the Middle Tennessee loss was in overtime.

Now, the Owls are reaping the benefits of a maturing sophomore quarterback Jaquez Johnson. He accounted for over 400 yards last week, and FAU's offense is now something worth fearing.

Marshall, a contender for the East Division title, will get to experience it this week. Upstart Tulane, which is 2-0 and trying to be a factor in the West, will see it on Nov. 2. It could just be the kind of thing that could impact the league races, even if it comes a little too late for a 2-4 FAU team.

How his team bounced back from that 18-14 loss to Rice is an example of what coach Carl Pelini was hoping to see in terms of development for his squad.

"In many ways that was our best week of practice coming off our most disappointing loss," Pelini said. "Probably, I would say in the two years that I have been here last week was the best week of preparation that we have had in terms of focus, the effort on the practice field, the things that were being said by the leadership on this team. That hasn't been an issue. Our guys come out every week ready to work."

East Carolina (4-1, 2-0 C-USA)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at Tulane, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--Senior DB Damon Magazu had 15 tackles in last week's win over Middle Tennessee State, "a conference player-of-the-Week type of game," coach Ruffin McNeill later called it. Magazu wasn't named the C-USA player of the week, but he remains ECU's leading tackler, and someone that Tulane should account for. Magazu has 37 tackles, which is 15th-best in the league.

--QB Shane Carden has widened his lead over Marshall's Rakeem Cato, the preseason offensive player of the year, in the league's passing race. Carden has 307.4 yards per game in the air to Cato's 271.2. Carden also has the better pass efficiency rating, a 148.5 that's nearly 10 points better than Cato's 139.6, which is second-best.

--RB Vintavious Cooper, the team's leading rusher, is unlikely to play at Tulane, the Reflector reported. That means more time for backup Chris Hairston, who impressed coach Ruffin McNeill with his play last week after Cooper suffered a concussion. "I thought he did a good job of waiting for his opportunity and seizing the moment," McNeill said. "He ran with relentlessness, which we need, and he also protected well. He caught the ball well and made some really vital first downs." Hariston, a sophomore, has career-highs in yards (94) and carries (18).

Florida Atlantic (2-4, 1-3)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. Marshall, Saturday, 5 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--The reigning Conference USA offensive player of the week is QB Jaquez Johnson, who had 404 yards of offense in the win over UAB last week. "Quez is maturing into a very efficient quarterback," coach Carl Pelini said.

--Marshall's Rakeem Cato will have matchup problems with FAU junior DB D'Joun Smith. He'll probably be looking the other direction most of the time, because Smith, a former league defensive player of the week, leads C-USA in passes defended, with 12, and has three interceptions.

--CB Keith Reaser suffered a torn ACL in his left knee, the Sun-Sentinel reported, which will end his season, and because he's a senior, his career. It's a big blow to FAU, Pelini said. "I have said it from the start of the year: I think Keith is one of the better defensive backs not only in this conference but in this country, probably," he said. "In terms of his skill and what he brings to the table; (but) not just that -- leadership."

Florida International (1-4, 1-0)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. UAB, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--UAB's running back, Darrin Reaves, should look out for FIU senior Greg Hickman. Through just five games this year, he has forced a Conference USA-leading three fumbles. He has forced seven in his career, which is the most in FIU history.

--Look for more of RB Silas Spearman, who had a breakout game in last week's 24-23 win at Southern Miss. Spearman had a whopping 29 carries for 136 yards and two scores. It set the FIU true freshman record for rushing yards and carries.

--FIU junior QB Jake Medlock, who has split time this season with E.J. Hilliard, is "full go" this week after suffering an undisclosed injury in last week's win at Southern Miss, the Miami Herald reported.

Louisiana Tech (2-4, 1-1)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Does not play.

Marshall (3-2, 1-0)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at Florida Atlantic, Saturday, 5 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--DL Ra'Shawde Myers had an interception in last week's win over UTSA, which to coach Doc Holliday is just another indicator of his progression with the Thundering Herd. To that end, he's named him a captain for this week's game at FAU.

--OL Jordan Jeffries has ended his Marshall career. Holliday said he had a hip condition that will "affect his quality of life down the road" the more he plays." Jeffries will join the program as a student coach. "He's a great kid that will be an engineer one day," Holliday said. "He'll be fine."

--Holliday is concerned with the mobility of Jaquez Johnson, the FAU quarterback, but says it has helped that his team has played similar quarterbacks in recent games. Still, linebackers such as Neville Hewitt will have their hands full with Johnson.

Middle Tennessee (3-3, 1-1)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at North Texas, Saturday, 6 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--Sophomore LB T.T. Barber is the conference's leading tackler. He has 69 tackles through two games, on pace for a whopping 138 this season. Along with senior Zachary Orr, who is fifth in the league in tackles, the Blue Raiders present problems for the North Texas offense.

--Coach Rick Stockstill would like to see QB Logan Kilgore and his receivers look for more of the deep bombs. To him, the Blue Raiders have been reliant on screens and intermediate passing routes this year. "We're not creating very many explosive plays," Stockstill said. "That's where we've got to get better. We've got to get more explosive plays than what we have so far this year." Kilgore said the game plan always depends on what the defense is giving the Blue Raiders.

--WR Kyle Griswould could be a candidate for some of those deep routes. Which is something, considering he came to MTSU as a running back. "He competes every down, he blocks, he plays well without the ball," Stockstill said. "He's our punt returner; he's brought one back for a touchdown. We're very proud of him and very pleased with him, and it's been great to coach him."

North Texas (2-3, 0-1)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. Middle Tennessee, Saturday, 6 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--The Blue Raiders have to account for UNT's everywhere guy, WR Brelan Chancellor. The senior leads Conference USA in punt return average with 19.7 yards per return. He's also second in kick return average, with 31.6 yards per return. Chancellor's ability to change a game in an instant is quite the weapon for Dan McCarney's Mean Green.

--QB Derek Thompson, the league's third-leading quarterback, has already set something of a North Texas record. His 1,346 passing yards through five games is a school record for that many games.

--WR Darnell Smith has been a recipient of much of that. He's set a career high for receptions in a season -- after just five games. He has 36, which bested his old mark by eight.

Rice (3-2, 2-0)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at UTSA, Saturday, 3 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--RB Charles Ross, the lead back for the league's top rush offense, may be available for Saturday's game, the Houston Chronicle reported. Ross has been out for the last three games with a knee sprain and was close to coming back last week, according to the newspaper.

--QB Taylor McHargue passed the Owls to victory last week at Tulsa, but the aerial attack has not been Rice's specialty this year. McHargue has a 101.83 pass efficiency rating and has thrown six interceptions and four touchdowns.

Southern Miss (0-5, 0-1)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Does not play.

Tulane (4-2, 2-0)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. East Carolina, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--Sophomore DB Lorenzo Doss was named the Conference USA defensive player of the week after a two-interception game in the Green Wave's win over North Texas. He returned one of the picks for a touchdown. He's the second straight Tulane cornerback to win the award, giving ECU QB Shane Carden something to look out for in Saturday's game. Doss leads C-USA in interceptions with four.

--PK Cairo Santos hit the game-winner in last week's win over North Texas, but has already missed three field goals since his NCAA record-approaching streak of 26 was snapped earlier this year. Santos' father died earlier this season back in Brazil, justifiably sapping his attention from football.

--DL Chris Davenport and Julius Warmsley were singled out by coach Curtis Johnson earlier this week as having to face a significant challenge in East Carolina's running game. "The first day of the week, I challenged the defensive line," Johnson said.

Tulsa (1-4, 0-1)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at UTEP, Saturday, 7 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- RB Trey Watts figures to have a standout game against the Miners' defense. Watts has the 11th-most all-purpose yards of any C-USA player in the history of the league, with 5,129.

-- Junior PK Carl Salazar is off to a stellar start. He has only missed two of his 11 field goals attempts and has a game-winner. Even more, he has made his last nine attempts, missing just his two in the opener against Bowling Green.

-- No wonder there's some concern for Tulsa at quarterback. Cody Green, the Nebraska transfer, has completed just 53 percent of his passes and has a 108.2 efficiency rating. He is averaging 208 yards per game and has thrown for as many touchdowns -- five -- as he has interceptions.

UAB (1-4, 0-1)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at Florida International, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- While the UAB defense struggles, the UAB offense thrives thanks in large part to an explosive player: junior WR Jamarcus Nelson. His 17.6 yards per catch leads C-USA among regular receivers, and he leads the conference in kick return average, including one this year for a touchdown. He's also the league's leading receiver, with 92.5 yards per game.

-- CB Jimmy Jean might find a role on offense, McGee said. "I think there could be a role for Jimmy to sneak out on the field and go after big plays for us because he is just so talented," McGee said.

-- McGee was pleased with how LB Shaq Jones played as a stand-up OLB in last week's loss to Florida Atlantic.

UTEP (1-4, 0-2)

THIS WEEK's GAME: vs. Tulsa, Saturday, 7 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--WR Jordan Leslie has emerged as QB Jameill Showers' most reliable target. He has 22 catches for four touchdowns and is averaging 76.6 receiving yards per game. "They work together in practice and really when you see a great quarterback and great receiver on the same page, it's exciting. They're starting to develop that chemistry," coach Sean Kugler said.

--RB Aaron Jones is Conference USA's leading rusher not so much because of his speed, but because of his toughness, Kugler said. "He runs between the tackles, he breaks tackles, and he takes big hits and gets right up. He's got a good understanding of the game and he's just a great character kid," Kugler said.

--Proper tackling continues to be a point of emphasis for Kugler, and it'll be a big one this week when Tulsa RB Trey Watts comes to town. If Watts is to be contained, it'll be because DT Marcus Bagley, UTEP's leading tackler (with 31) had a good game.

UTSA (2-4, 1-1)

THIS WEEK's GAME: vs. Rice, Saturday, 3 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--Much has been made about QB Eric Soza's spreading the wealth; he has thrown to a league-best 19 receivers. He routinely finds double-digit receivers in any given game. The problem for the Roadrunners, though, is he's also finding players who play for the other team. His nine interceptions is second-most in the conference.

--The Roadrunners' defensive line will have to play its best to contain Rice, which has the league's best rushing attack. Junior DE Robert Singletary had a good start toward that in last week's loss at Marshall. He had seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

--RB David Glasco II needs a big game to help make the UTSA offense more two-dimensional. The Roadrunners are 10th in the league in rushing, with 112.6 yards per game. And Glasco, the team's leading rusher, is averaging just 34.7 yards per game.

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NCAAF Team Report - Florida International - NOTES, QUOTES

--Nary a Conference USA running back is averaging more than 100 yards per game, which speaks to the pass-first offenses in the conference this year. UTEP freshman Aaron Jones is the league's top rusher with 93.4 yards per game. Only six C-USA backs are averaging more than 70 yards per game.

--Southern Miss had a long battle in fall camp over who would be its starting quarterback. Allan Bridgford won and has had some degree of success, but here's what's holding him and the Golden Eagles back: his 11 interceptions in five games. Will USM look to retool the quarterback position in its off week?

--Marshall will be playing at Florida Atlantic for the first time, but it's not as if the environs are unfamiliar. Doc Holliday's team has amassed 18 players on its roster from Florida, a nod to that state's fertile recruiting grounds.

--East Carolina is on a roll. Ruffin McNeill's Pirates have won seven consecutive Conference USA games, dating to an Oct. 11, 2012 win.

--One thing that's been keeping Middle Tennessee from having as consistent and explosive an offense as coach Rick Stockstill would like has been constant injuries at the center position. "It's tough. We haven't started the same center in back-to-back games all year," QB Logan Kilgore said.

--Rice has won three times this year, each of which has come in a come-from-behind effort. Opponents are outscoring the Owls 27-0 in the third quarter.

--One reason why Tulsa is off to such a poor start: If you take out veteran LB Shawn Jackson, the rest of the Tulsa defense had just 22 starts prior to the season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not going to lose my composure. What kind of message does that send to the players? Am I happy that we're 1-4? No, I'm disgusted by it. Am I going to point fingers at players or coaches? No I'm not going to do that either. What I'm going to do is continually work." -- UTEP coach Sean Kugler.

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NCAAF Team Report - Florida International - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH THIS WEEK IN CONFERENCE USA:

1. Rice is off to its first 2-0 start in league play since 2008, when it went 7-1 in league play and narrowly missed out on the conference title game. It figures to move to 3-0 when it plays UTSA Saturday in a game in which it'll be favored.

Against UTSA's suspect defense, though, which way will Rice lean? Will it try to re-establish its run game, or develop the passing game that led it to victory at Tulsa last week? How the Rice offense moves forward from here may well determine just how successful its season will be.

2. UAB made a midseason switch at defensive coordinator, promoting Jimmy Williams to the spot and demoting Reggie Johnson just to linebackers coach. Will it make a difference this far into the season? Who knows, but head coach Garrick McGee didn't feel like the previous role was tenable.

"After five games of the season we are giving up 481 yards per game, we are last in defense in Conference USA and those numbers are not acceptable," McGee said. "We expect better, and I am not going to just stand around and continue to say that we are going to keep doing what we are doing and we are going to get better at it."

3. East Carolina survived a trap game last week, beating Middle Tennessee by a touchdown in Murfreesboro. It came after a 24-point blowout win over in-state rival North Carolina, leaving the Pirates vulnerable.

Can they do it two weeks in a row? Now facing Tulane in New Orleans, a team that feels that it's heading somewhere after a 2-0 conference start. In many ways, this might be even more dangerous than MTSU. If the Pirates can survive both of these, that'll speak well for the mental toughness Ruffin McNeill has instilled in his team in Greenville.

4. There is frustration in Tulsa over the state of the Golden Hurricane, which is now 1-4 after winning the conference title last year. A loss to Rice has put Tulsa behind the eight-ball when it comes to the West Division race. Now, Tulsa faces an imminently winnable game on the road at UTEP. If it can't win a game like this, once could surmise that the wheels have certainly fallen off the Golden Hurricane train.

5. Does Florida Atlantic have a new formula with dual-threat quarterback Jaquez Johnson's development? Or did the Owls just benefit from UAB's soft defense?

Either way, Marshall should have some trepidation heading to Boca Raton this week. This is a team that could easily be 4-2 and is dangerous to any C-USA contender.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/131008/florida-international-teamreport