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NCAAF Team Report - Marshall - INSIDE SLANT
With the entire Conference USA membership playing each other Saturday, there were bound to be some order-shaking games. Out West, Rice's overtime win over Tulsa fit the bill, and in the East, East Carolina's win at Middle Tennessee helped shape the order of that division race.
Even without injured RB Charles Ross, Rice rose up and found just enough of a passing game to win on the road. Tulsa's offense remains a bit of a puzzle a year after the Golden Hurricane won the Conference USA title.
Rice is now in the driver's seat of the West Division race, with the only contenders being Tulsa (if it can get its own act together, and if Rice slips) and an upstart, though potentially untested, Tulane team. The Green Wave improved to 2-0 with a narrow win over North Texas.
In the East, East Carolina avoided a trap on the road at a solid Middle Tennessee team. It will be some time before we know if the Pirates are the class of the East, as a meaningful game against Marshall awaits at the end of the year.
But Saturday's win at Middle Tennessee, coupled with last week's win at North Carolina -- a blowout win, at that -- suggests that the Pirates have what it takes to take care of business the rest of the way.
EAST CAROLINA (4-1, 2-0)
Game: East Carolina 24, Middle Tennessee 17. The Pirates outgained Middle Tennessee 511 yards to 334, including a 43-completion, 365-yard game in the air, yet still needed a 21-yard touchdown pass from Shane Carden to Justin Hardy early in the fourth quarter to separate themselves from pesky MTSU.
Takeaway: This was a perfect opportunity for a letdown for the Pirates, one week after smashing in-state rival North Carolina. The Blue Raiders are no C-USA pushover, and the game would be on the road. To compound matters, the Pirates lost their chief ground weapon early in the game.
None of that mattered. The best sign for coach Ruffin McNeill's Pirates was they didn't fold to adversity on the road when the trap was set. "We told them, 'Just keep doing your job and keep playing the next play,'" McNeill said. "We made some mistakes, but you will against a good team. We overcame them, we kept fighting and we came out with a win."
Now the Pirates own a C-USA win over a team expected to be in the middle tier of the conference.
Next: At Tulane, Oct. 12.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC (2-4, 1-3)
Game: Florida Atlantic 37, UAB 23. It was all Jaquez Johnson for the Owls Saturday in Birmingham, and the result was FAU's first Conference USA win after three frustrating losses. Johnson, the dual-purpose quarterback, threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 105 yards and a touchdown as the Owls scored twice in the final three minutes of the game to pull away.
Takeaway: If this is the kind of offense a healthy Johnson can provide Carl Pelini and his team, it can certainly be competitive in Conference USA. Florida Atlantic's 579 yards of offense were its most since racking up 624 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette four seasons ago.
Not long ago, it looked like this FAU season might be on the rails given narrow losses to both Rice and Middle Tennessee. But Johnson's play against UAB gives hope to FAU fans that even if the hole for bowl eligibility might still be too deep to crawl out of, the future is bright, what with Johnson under center. Too, FAU might be quite the spoiler as the weeks wear on the rest of the season, starting with next week's game against one of the East's top teams.
Next: Vs. Marshall, Oct. 12.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (1-4, 1-0)
Game: Florida International 24, Southern Miss 23. Isame Faciane blocked a potential game-winning field goal as time expired to lift FIU to its first win under coach Ron Turner and a win in its Conference USA debut. The Panthers gained a respectable 341 yards and overcame eight penalties and two turnovers. Austin Taylor's 27-yard field goal with 6:53 to play lifted FIU ahead of USM in a see-saw game between two previously winless teams.
Takeaway: Given that FIU's win in Hattiesburg was Southern Miss' 17th consecutive loss, it's hard to take away much from the Xs and Os. Sure, Silas Spearman had a nice game with 136 yards and two touchdowns rushing, and E.J. Hilliard was nice in relief of Jake Medlock at quarterback.
But this was psychological. FIU was the butt of jokes across college football for its moribund start that even featured a 20-point loss to Bethune-Cookman. Coach Ron Turner, though, said he always felt his team had potential, but not every aspect of the team would show up and play well on every game day -- until Saturday, which could pay dividends in the future.
"It was the best we had practiced, so it's no coincidence we went out and played better," Turner said.
Next: Vs. UAB, Oct. 12.
LOUISIANA TECH (2-4, 1-1)
Game: Louisiana Tech 38, UTEP 35. Kenneth Dixon ran for 200 yards and a touchdown and QB Ryan Higgins added two rushing touchdowns as the Bulldogs held off UTEP to win on the road. The Bulldogs were up 24-7 late in the second quarter before a UTEP rally the rest of the way closed the game to within a field goal with a minute left. Tech then recovered the onside kick.
Takeaway: In a season filled with disappointment, Tech got the validation it was seeking. "They've lost three in a row and you can never tell it by the way they work," Tech coach Skip Holtz said.
And maybe it found a good way to get there. Tech had been struggling passing the ball this year, one year after setting all sorts of scoring marks. Kenneth Dixon ran for 200 yards on 25 carries Saturday, meaning he might be the workhorse for the Tech offense, instead of relying too much on unproven QBs Ryan Higgins and Scotty Young.
Next: vs. North Texas, Oct. 19.
MARSHALL (3-2, 1-0)
Game: Marshall 34, UTSA 10. The Thundering Herd jumped on UTSA quickly and didn't let off the pedal, racing out to a 24-0 lead on the strength of its dynamic offense and a defense that honed in on limiting UTSA's wide-open offense. Marshall collected 404 total yards, and had a nice 22-for-32, 279-yard, two-touchdown day from QB Rakeem Cato.
Takeaway: Marshall coach Doc Holliday was wary of UTSA coming in because the Roadrunners are still a bit of an unknown in their third year. UTSA was averaging 500 yards of offense per game, and doing it primarily on the outside. Having an extra week off allowed Marshall to hone in on an unconventional offense and provided the defense with all the ammo it needed.
"For us to have two weeks to prepare for the perimeter runs and the way they threw the ball was great for us," Holliday said. "Our defensive backs did an excellent job at taking away the easy access throws and got interceptions a couple times. I thought the defensive backs played extremely well. They tackled well. The linebackers did a great job of running and it was great to see."
Next: at Florida Atlantic, Oct. 12.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (3-3, 1-1)
Game: East Carolina 24, Middle Tennessee 17. The Blue Raiders started strong, but the Pirates were eventually too much. East Carolina racked up more than 500 offensive yards and held MTSU to just a touchdown over the final three quarters. A Shane Carden touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter gave ECU all it needed.
Takeaway: Normally solid in taking care of the ball, Middle Tennessee was hampered in Saturday's loss by the two interceptions thrown by its senior QB Logan Kilgore. His interception ended MT's final drive with 5:10 to play in the fourth quarter, the Blue Raiders trailing only by a touchdown.
"It's really deflating when you're driving and you don't get any points, but that's part of it," offensive lineman Josh Walker said.
Next: at North Texas, Oct. 12.
NORTH TEXAS (2-3, 0-1)
Game: Tulane 24, North Texas 21. Cairo Santos drilled a 27-yard field goal as time expired to hand the Mean Green a gut-punch of a loss. UNT had erased a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to get to this point. Tulane won despite North Texas holding it to 227 total yards.
Takeaway: The defensive effort was more than enough. And the resolve to fight back from that two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter was encouraging for UNT coach Dan McCarney. But the simple truth remains: This was a loss, a tough one, for the Mean Green.
It was tough because this was the kind of team that UNT should beat in order to cement itself in the middle tier of C-USA teams. The Mean Green's early-season results had kind of suggested that it was heading there, too. Especially painful is that UNT outplayed Tulane on various points of the stat sheet, too, but left New Orleans still with a loss.
Next: vs. Middle Tennessee, Oct. 12.
RICE (3-2, 2-0)
Game: Rice 30, Tulsa 27 (OT). Taylor McHargue threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Darik Dillard to lift the Owls to a win in overtime. The Owls overcame being stymied in the running game, as Tulsa held a potent rush offense to 167 yards. Rice led 24-10 at halftime but gave up the deficit on a rally capped by a game-tying field goal with 1:07 left.
Takeaway: The win lifted the Owls into the driver's seat and the favorite's chair in the top-heavy West Division. Sure, Tulane is also 2-0 and may pose a challenge, but Saturday's win for the Owls meant a road victory at the defending conference champion and the preseason favorite to win the league.
It had to be especially meaningful to coach David Bailiff because of how his team won it. Rice had built its offense around the rush game of Charles Ross but has missed him recently after he suffered what the Houston Chronicle called a sprained knee ligament in the Sept. 21 Owls loss to Houston. He didn't play at all Saturday, meaning Rice had to build its win around McHargue and a band of receivers led by Turner Petersen (five catches, 78 yards, one touchdown), Jordan Taylor (four catches, 49 yards) and Darik Dillard, whose lone catch was the game-winner.
If the Owls can routinely develop that kind of versatility, they might become the favorite to win the whole conference.
Next: at UTSA, Oct. 12.
SOUTHERN MISS (0-5, 0-1)
Game: Florida International 24, Southern Miss 23. The agony continues. The Golden Eagles, presented with perhaps the best opportunity yet to break their growing winless streak, watched as Austin Taylor's 27-yard field goal with 6:53 to play put FIU ahead. USM attempted a field goal on the final play, but it was blocked.
Takeaway: Where will the win come? Southern Miss had a golden opportunity to snap its 16-game losing streak Saturday when winless Florida International came to town, but instead it increased to 17.
Coach Todd Monken has pointed to positive signs in some previous losses, but it was hard to do that after losing to FIU. The real issue may be when will his team begin to give up? The lack of positive reinforcement over the past season and a half certainly makes that issue real.
"The most important thing we can do is to continue to get better and play better football. I think the effort has been tremendous. There's some things that we can correct, obviously. But, at the end of the day, no one is coming to rescue us. All we have is each other. We have to systematically look at what we do to get better in all aspects of the program," Monken said.
Next: at East Carolina, Oct. 19.
TULANE (4-2, 2-0)
Game: Tulane 24, North Texas 21. Cairo Santos drilled a 27-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Green Wave to its fourth win of the young season. North Texas overcame a two-touchdown fourth-quarter Tulane lead to tie the game, and Tulane only had 227 total yards.
Takeaway: The numbers weren't pretty. Nick Montana's passing game only yielded 132 yards, and the leading rusher, Orleans Darkwa, only could come up with 44 yards. Yet the result, a 24-21 win, only made Tulane fans start thinking about bowl eligibility.
The Green Wave got a win against a team it needed to beat in order to establish itself in the middle tier of C-USA. Now, the Green Wave is at 2-0 atop the West Division standings, but with tougher foes to come. East Carolina and Tulsa, after all, make up the Green Wave's next two games. The most likely opportunities for wins to get to six? UTSA (Nov. 9 in San Antonio) and UTEP (Nov. 23 in New Orleans).
Next: vs. East Carolina, Oct. 12.
TULSA (1-4, 0-1)
Game: Rice 30, Tulsa 27 (OT). A furious second-half rally from down 14 at halftime forced overtime, but that wasn't enough for the Golden Hurricane in its Conference USA opener. Taylor McHargue's 25-yard touchdown pass to Darik Dillard in overtime gave Rice the win. Tulsa lost despite outgaining Rice 415-344 in total yards and having fewer penalties and five more first downs.
Takeaway: Tulsa's season is not going as planned. The defending Conference USA champion and preseason pick to win the league now has just one win, an out-of-conference game against Colorado State, and is already playing from behind in the West Division. Rice was considered to be the Golden Hurricane's chief competition for the title and berth in the C-USA title game.
"There is no question we set the bar high. I've never accomplished anything great in life setting the bar low, and we won't ever set the bar low," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. "Are we incredibly disappointed? Absolutely, and I think folks should be deservedly disappointed and upset with that. I have no problem with that."
Next: at UTEP, Oct. 12.
UAB (1-4, 0-1)
Game: Florida Atlantic 37, UAB 23. FAU QB Jaquez Johnson accounted for over 400 yards and had three touchdowns, part of a 579-yard effort yielded by the Blazers defense. Still, UAB had a chance. It tied the game with five minutes to play, only to see FAU score two touchdowns in the final three minutes to slide out of Birmingham with a win.
Takeaway: For a team that has one of the league's top running backs and an offensive-minded coach, Saturday's defensive performance was exactly the kind of thing that must drive UAB coach Garrick McGee up the wall. UAB had immense trouble containing Johnson and the spread offense, which means it'll have trouble against about any other offense it sees the rest of the way.
Yet McGee attributed the malaise to something larger. "It didn't look like, we have good kids and our kids really want to do well and they try to do the right thing, but it did not look like they were very motivated and inspired throughout the game, which is a huge issue to me in a game this big, of this magnitude, for us to get our conference season started throughout the right way," McGee said, according to al.com.
Next: at Florida International, Oct. 12.
UTEP (1-4, 0-2)
Game: Louisiana Tech 38, UTEP 35. The visiting Bulldogs took a 24-7 lead late in the second quarter and the Miners could not climb out of the hole. UTEP cut the lead to three on a touchdown pass with 1:03 to play, but didn't recover the onside kick. Louisiana Tech won with 463 yards of total offense, including a 200-yard, one-touchdown performance from Kenneth Dixon.
Takeaway: UTEP has to find something that works on defense. In four losses this season, the Miners have given up 42, 32, 59 and 38. The Miners even yielded 463 yards to Louisiana Tech, which has been struggling on offense this season under first-year coach Skip Holtz.
Next: vs. Tulsa, Oct. 12.
UTSA (2-4, 1-1)
Game: Marshall 34, UTSA 10. The Roadrunners ran into their stiffest defensive challenge of the season Saturday and did not respond well. UTSA didn't get on the scoreboard until late in the second quarter, at which point Marshall was already up 24-0. QB Eric Soza had a miserable day, throwing three interceptions and no touchdowns on 10-for-26 passing.
Takeaway: The Roadrunners were startled by Marshall's team speed on defense, forcing Soza to make decisions he wasn't comfortable with. The result was predictable, and it made it clear why UTSA, in its first year in Conference USA, was picked to finish at the bottom.
"Their defensive front was fast," UTSA coach Larry Coker said. "I think that was something that we hadn't seen. They also had good size on the front."
Next: vs. Rice, Oct. 12.
NCAAF Team Report - Marshall - NOTES, QUOTES
--Rice's overtime win at Tulsa exorcised a couple of demons. It was Rice's first overtime win since 2006, when it also won at Tulsa. That win was also the last time the Owls beat Tulsa.
--Middle Tennessee junior WR Marcus Henry had his best day in a Blue Raiders uniform. He caught five of Logan Kilgore's 28 completions, which was a career high. He had caught three passes in a game four other times.
--At 2-4, Florida Atlantic has a tall road to climb to find bowl eligibility. But it isn't impossible. The Owls will certainly be underdogs at Auburn, but that's about the only tall task remaining on the schedule. FAU still has to play Marshall, Tulane, Southern Miss, New Mexico State and rival Florida International.
--Southern Miss' 17-game losing streak remains the longest active such streak in the Bowl Subdivision.
--FIU DT Greg Hickman forced a fumble with 1:13 left in the second quarter of the Panthers' win at Southern Miss that placed him in the record book. With eight forced fumbles in his career, he became the program's all-time leader in that category.
--North Texas' potent offense, led by QB Derek Thompson, found it slow going Saturday against Tulane's defense. The final score might not reflect it, but this does: It was the first time all year UNT had been shut out in the first half.
--PK Cairo Santos, last year's Lou Groza Award winner, is accustomed to making big kicks for Tulane. His game-winner Saturday, though, came just two weeks after the death of his father. "I don't know how this kid can make any field goals with what he's going through right now," Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. "I see him in the halls and he's teary-eyed all the time. I just hope that he can get over some of this and get back to being his old self, but it was just fantastic. I told him at halftime that he was going to win this game for us so get up, and he did."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "At this point, I don't know what to say. You put your name on something, the coaching staff and players, you put so much into it and to not get the results that you expect. It's hard. It's part of this profession, but it doesn't make it any easier. FIU played better than we did. They outcoached us, they outplayed us. They earned the victory." -- Southern Miss coach Todd Monken, after previously winless Florida International beat his team 24-23 Saturday.
NCAAF Team Report - Marshall - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 6 IN CONFERENCE USA:
1. Rice is the pre-eminent team in the West Division, but it comes at the expense of some real misery for Tulsa. The preseason favorite to win the league is now 1-4 with a loss to the team that is expected to be its chief competition.
As of today, Rice would be the team most would expect to represent the West in the C-USA title game.
2. Is Tulane for real? The Green Wave is 2-0 in Conference USA play, but it's easy to put an asterisk beside that as the two wins came over Louisiana Tech and North Texas. Stronger competition awaits, and that's when we'll really start to find out if Tulane has what it takes.
But it's hard not to like what coach Curtis Johnson is doing in New Orleans. His team just seems to find ways to win, like Saturday against North Texas.
3. Maybe Louisiana Tech has something cooking on offense, after all. The Bulldogs set the WAC on fire last year, averaging more than 50 points per game. But under Skip Holtz, they weren't able to create that magic until Saturday's win at UTEP.
They did it thanks to a 200-yard night from Kenneth Dixon at running back and a 353-yard rushing performance overall. Maybe that's the ticket -- the ground game -- to Tech's future success.
4. Will Southern Miss ever win another football game? It's striking what has happened to the Golden Eagles, who won 12 games and the conference title in 2011. They haven't won since. USM had its best opportunity with Florida International in town last week, then lost by a point.
Now, the road gets considerably tougher. USM must travel to East Carolina, Marshall, Louisiana Tech and UAB. It hosts North Texas, Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State. Surely the Golden Eagles won't go 0-12 again, right?
5. Watch out, Marshall (Oct. 12). Beware, Tulane (Nov. 2). Florida Atlantic could be quite the spoiler for those teams in the Conference USA race. The Owls are essentially out of it at 1-3, thanks to a couple of narrow early-season losses.
But if QB Jaquez Johnson can rack up the kind of numbers he did at UAB -- 400-plus total yards, three touchdowns -- the Owls will be extremely dangerous to corral. They can get in a shootout with the best of the league, and maybe just win.