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NCAAF Team Report - Florida International - INSIDE SLANT
Larry Coker and UTSA, in just their first year in Conference USA and their third year as a NCAA football program, are major disruptors when it comes to their new conference.
The latest disruption came Saturday, when the Roadrunners went to Denton and de-railed the North Texas feel-good story of the fall. It blew the West Division race wide open.
Rice is now the team to beat. The Owls are 6-1 and can clinch the West Division title by beating Tulane Saturday. But that's no gimme. Tulane is one of the three teams at 5-2. There's a scenario by which four teams end the year at 6-2, leaving the West in a mess. North Texas would lose all tiebreakers and is not in contention for the title.
But back to UTSA. The Roadrunners were once 2-5, but have now won four straight. They did it Saturday by limiting North Texas' danger, especially in passing. UTSA's once-maligned defense held UNT to 334 yards.
Last week, the school confirmed to the San Antonio Express-News that it's working on a contract extension for Coker. The rest of C-USA probably had to wince.
EAST CAROLINA (9-2, 6-1 C-USA)
Game: East Carolina 42, N.C. State 28. QB Shane Carden threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more as the Pirates raced out to a 35-7 lead and never looked back against an in-state rival. WR Justin Hardy had eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown and RB Vintavious Cooper had a whopping 148 yards on 22 carries.
Takeaway: Forget, for a moment, that East Carolina continues to establish itself as a point of C-USA pride, or that there's a showdown next week when the Pirates play at Marshall, the East Division title on the line. Think of what this win and the one earlier this year against North Carolina does for the ECU program as a whole. It's the first time ECU had beaten both in the same season in the history of the program. "We will see the results of this in how recruits react," ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said.
Next: at Marshall, Nov. 29.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC (5-6, 3-4)
Game: Florida Atlantic 55, New Mexico State 10.
Takeaway: Hard as this may have been to believe when FAU was 2-6 and fired coach Carl Pelini in the middle of a game week, the Owls are on the verge of going bowling. All that's left is a season-ending game against Florida International, which has won just two games this season. And while it is something of a South Florida rivalry, odds are FAU comes out with a win.
Do the Owls now hire Brian Wright, the interim coach who is now 3-0? It's a good problem for FAU brass to have, on the verge of an improbable bowl.
Next: vs. Florida International, Nov. 29.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (1-10, 1-6)
Game: Marshall 48, Florida International 10. A promising 3-0 lead after the end of the first quarter turned into a Marshall rout in the final game of the year at FIU Stadium. Marshall racked up 558 yards and held FIU to just 95 rushing yards. FIU had nine penalties for 89 yards.
Takeaway: If the Panthers were hoping for an uplifting end to a season that started in the tank, the past few weeks have not revealed that. FIU lost to another C-USA cellar dwellar, UTEP. And faced with a Marshall team on its home turf, the Panthers hardly put up a fight after the first quarter.
Rival Florida Atlantic is next, and this season is about more than the QB play of E.J. Hilliard (15-for-29 Saturday for 167 yards and a score) or the running of Lamarq Caldwell (held to 56 yards on 17 carries against Marshall). It's about an uplifting end to a season that seems to be escaping the Panthers right now.
Next: at Florida Atlantic, Nov. 29.
LOUISIANA TECH (4-7, 3-4)
Game: Tulsa 24, Louisiana Tech 14. The Bulldogs threw four interceptions and allowed Tulsa RB Trey Watts to run for 189 yards en route to a result that ensured Tech would not go bowling this year. RB Tevin King ran for 111 yards and QB Ryan Higgins threw for 195 yards and a touchdown on 22 of 43 passing.
Takeaway: Tech has shown it had made some strides in recent weeks; that it was even still talking about a bowl in late November said something. But in the end, this Bulldogs team was right back where it started: having some of the right pieces, but making too many mistakes to make it count.
"We just made too many mistakes, especially in the second half," coach Skip Holtz said. "We talked about the turnover bug, really the achilles heel for this football team at this point. We had four turnovers in the second half that made it very difficult to overcome."
Next: at UTSA, Nov. 30.
MARSHALL (8-3, 6-1)
Game: Marshall 48, Florida International 10. Rakeem Cato threw for four touchdowns and 241 yards (and no interceptions) as the Thundering Herd went to Miami and routed the Panthers. Marshall had a balanced offense -- 270 rushing yards and 288 passing yards. TE Gator Hoskins had six catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns.
Takeaway: TE Gator Hoskins had three touchdown catches, which only highlighted the importance of his receiving ability to QB Rakeem Cato. Consider just where Hoskins ranks in his Marshall career.
His 25 catches are fourth all-time at Marshall (Randy Moss leads that category). With a dozen scoring grabs this season, he's seventh on the all-time list. He is the current FBS leader for touchdown catches for a tight end.
Next: vs. East Carolina, Nov. 29.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (7-4, 5-2)
Game: Middle Tennessee 42, Southern Miss 21. The Blue Raiders won their fourth straight game and increased their potential bowl chances by using a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns in the first half to stake a 14-7 lead. Middle Tennessee collected 418 total yards, with 246 of them coming on the ground. The Blue Raiders played a turnover-free game and had just three penalties.
Takeaway: QB Logan Kilgore will play his final game as a Blue Raider Saturday, ending a record-setting career. But in last week's game against USM, the Blue Raiders' running backs were the stars.
Sure, Kilgore threw for 172 yards and a score. But RB Shane Tucker had a two-touchdown, 103-yard game on 19 carries, and Jeremiah Bryson added 80 yards on 14 carries. Tucker is a freshman, and that's his career high. He is the fourth Blue Raider this season to rush for 100 or more yards in a game.
Next: vs. UTEP, Nov. 30.
NORTH TEXAS (7-4, 5-2)
Game: UTSA 21, North Texas 13. QB Derek Thompson threw an interception on the final play of the game, and the Mean Green's wild comeback attempt was all for naught. UTSA led the entire game but North Texas clawed back to within eight on a Thompson touchdown pass to Drew Miller with 5:38 left. UTSA's defense held North Texas in check, allowing just 105 rushing yards.
Takeaway: A dream season in Denton took a dent Saturday, when UTSA's upset eliminated any chance the Mean Green had at a conference title. Though North Texas may finish 6-2 alongside as many as three other teams, it would lose all tiebreakers in that scenario.
North Texas' challenge is to make sure its offensive woes are something that are fixable, and not part of a season-ending slide. Coach Dan McCarney is well aware. "We can't let this game beat us next Saturday," he said.
Next: at Tulsa, Nov. 30.
RICE (8-3, 6-1)
Game: Rice 37, UAB 34 (OT). Luke Turner's 1-yard touchdown run in overtime led Rice to a wild road win and kept alive the Owls' hopes to play in the C-USA title game. The Owls led by double digits multiple times, but a pesky home Blazers team kept coming back. The Blazers forced overtime on a field goal in the final minute and took a three-point lead in the first half of overtime on another Ty Long field goal.
Takeaway: Rice was held somewhat in check by UAB's defense, but still racked up over 300 yards on the ground. With the passing offense struggling, the Owls relied on the old reliable.
Problem is, star running back Charles Ross was injured. He left in the third quarter in what the Houston Chronicle described as a shoulder injury. It's unclear what his availability is going forward. Coach David Bailiff has to be encouraged, though, by the play of RB Jowan Davis. Picking up Ross' slack, he ran 19 times for a touchdown and 130 yards.
Next: vs. Tulane, Nov. 30.
SOUTHERN MISS (0-11, 0-7)
Game: Middle Tennessee 42, Southern Miss 21. Just when the Golden Eagles think they have something going, they can't get out of their own way. Freshman QB Nick Mullens threw two interceptions that resulted in touchdowns in the first half alone Saturday, digging the hole that led to USM's 23rd consecutive loss.
Takeaway: Thing is, Mullen had an otherwise stellar game. He threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns aside from those eye-opening picks, completing 27 of his 42 passes. If not for the picks, it would be hailed as a building block game in his ascension to the starting QB of the future in Hattiesburg.
"We have to continue to run the football better next week and throughout my tenure here so we can protect our quarterback and not put him in such harm's way," USM coach Todd Monken said. "I thought he battled and I thought our team battled. It just wasn't good enough today."
Next: at UAB, Nov. 30.
TULANE (7-4, 5-2)
Game: Tulane 45, UTEP 3. In Tulane's final game at the Louisiana Superdome, it found an offensive spark that has been missing at times. The Green Wave poured it on struggling UTEP early and often, racking up 482 yards. RB Orleans Darkwa racked up 137 yards and a touchdown. QB Nick Montana threw for 171 yards and three touchdowns.
Takeaway: In a season that has seen the Green Wave struggle at times on offense, Saturday's game was a late-season pick-me-up. Not only that, it was balanced. That suggests a commitment to some fundamentals, to hear the coach tell it.
"It started in the trenches," coach Curtis Johnson said. "Both our offense and defense played very well today. I think when we have a chance to run the ball, our offense works that much better, and I think we did a very good job of that today, allowing our offense to play very well."
Next: at Rice, Nov. 30.
TULSA (3-8, 2-5)
Game: Tulsa 24, Louisiana Tech 14. RB Trey Watts has always been dangerous as an all-purpose man, but he gave Tech his best rushing effort of his career Saturday, running for 189 yards and three touchdowns to lead struggling Tulsa to a road win. Tulsa intercepted four Louisiana Tech passes, though it had four turnovers of its own.
Takeaway: As this team's psyche goes, it couldn't have come at a better time. Tulsa had has some disheartening losses lately, and went to Ruston with nothing to play for.
"I thought we had to be the tougher team -- mentally with the elements, and physically tough," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said, when asked about the cold weather. "It took us a while, but we established it." That Tulsa responded as opposed to mailing it in is a testament to Blankenship's motivational abilities.
Next: vs. North Texas, Nov. 30.
UAB (2-9, 1-6)
Game: Rice 37, UAB 34 (OT). The Blazers erased a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to tie the game and send it to overtime, then took a 34-31 lead on Ty Long's 43-yard field goal. But then Rice's Luke Turner scored a touchdown from a yard out to lift the Owls to a win and keep UAB from the upset. QB Jonathan Perry completed half his passes for 195 yards and a touchdown, and also ran for 60 yards and a score.
Takeaway: Hard as it might be to believe after giving up 37 points and 467 yards, UAB's defense has at least half a reason to be happy. The Owls entered with the league's top rushing offense and the potential to blow the game out on the ground, yet UAB stayed in it.
The Blazers did this by limiting Rice's pass game and making it be one-dimensional. It also saw Rice's Charles Ross, its leading rusher, run just 10 times. For a team that has given up some eye-popping stats on defense this year, perhaps this is something of a building block for the Blazers entering 2014.
Next: vs. Southern Miss, Nov. 30
UTEP (2-9, 1-6)
Game: Tulane 45, UTEP 3. The Miners' defense was completely overwhelmed by a Tulane team playing on senior day, surrendering 38 points by halftime and 482 total yards. UTEP committed three turnovers. QB Mack Leftwich had 128 yards on 13 of 24 passing and threw an interception.
Takeaway: The Miners' offense has been wayward since QB Jameill Showers was lost to injury a few weeks back, but that still doesn't entirely explain the vanishing rushing offense.
Against Tulane, the Miners had a net total of 49 yards on the ground. Their leading rusher, Nathan Jeffrey, had just 47 yards on 14 carries.
Next: at Middle Tennessee, Nov. 30.
UTSA (6-5, 5-2)
Game: UTSA 21, North Texas 13. Defensive back Bennett Okotcha intercepted a Derek Thompson pass in the end zone on the final play of the game to preserve a win in which the Roadrunners led throughout. The win kept alive UTSA's chances of winning Conference USA's West Division. UTSA racked up 458 yards of offense and held a potent UNT attack to 334 yards.
Takeaway: Of all the offensive numbers the Roadrunners amassed in this impressive win, there was this one: UTSA was 14 of 20 on third down. THat means UTSA kept the chains moving and kept possession of the football, keeping it for 33:30 as compared to 26:30.
QB Eric Soza, the only starting quarterback the school has ever known, deserves credit. He ran for two touchdowns Saturday and threw for 274 yards on 30 of 49 passing. He continues to spread the wealth, too, finding 11 receivers on Saturday.
Next: vs. Louisiana Tech, Nov. 30.
NCAAF Team Report - Florida International - NOTES, QUOTES
--Middle Tennessee QB Logan Kilgore threw his 51st career touchdown pass Saturday, becoming the school's all-time leader in that category, moving pass Wes Counts.
--Marshall RB Steward Butler is fourth in the Bowl Subdivision in carries of 40 or more yards, with five. He had a 72-yard scoring run in the second quarter of Marshall's rout of Florida International Saturday.
--North Texas senior DB Marcus Trice collected his fifth interception of the season Saturday, marking the most in a season for a UNT defender since 2007. North Texas has an interception in each of its last six games.
--East Carolina is a respectable 7-13 against Atlantic Coast Conference teams since 2006.
--UTSA QB Eric Soza's 30-for-49 passing day (for 274 yards) matched a school record for completions he established earlier this year in a loss at Arizona.
--An aerial attack has been hit and miss for Rice this year, but a new name was added to the conversation Thursday. In Rice's win over UAB, senior TE Jeremy Eddington caught the first two passes of his season, one of which went for a touchdown.
--Middle Tennessee LB Leighton Gasque had two sacks against Southern Miss, moving him into third on the school's all-time list. He had 16 and is 4.5 behind second place.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "For our kids to continue to battle and continue to get fired up to play games, I am proud of them. We are just not at the level right now where we can win these games. It is a process and we are not that far away." -- UAB coach Garrick McGee, on his team's 37-34 overtime loss to Rice.
NCAAF Team Report - Florida International - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 13 IN CONFERENCE USA:
1. UTSA is the real deal and continues to impress. It's one thing for the Roadrunners to even be competitive in their first season in Conference USA, much less in contention for the league title. Yet that's exactly where UTSA finds itself just three years after the program's birth.
The credit has to go to Larry Coker, the coach who was hired a few years ago to launch the program. The former national title-winning coach at Miami has built something special in short order, and the rest of C-USA is finding out just how dangerous the new kids on the block are.
2. Rice is vulnerable. It's hard to make the case that UAB is a cagy underdog capable of beating anyone on any given day. Yet that's exactly what a casual look at last week's box score between the two teams might suggest. Rice escaped with an overtime win, which suggests that the Owls' coronation as presumptive West champions isn't so sure. Saturday's game against Tulane will be a dogfight at best if Rice plays that way against the Green Wave, which scored 45 points Saturday.
3. Tulsa's Trey Watts remains one of the league's best offensive players, and may just be the very best excluding quarterbacks. Watts ran for a career-high 189 yards in Saturday's win at Louisiana Tech and remains one of the conference's top all-purpose men.
"Trey just wanted to be fed the ball," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said.
4. Middle Tennessee has quietly pieced together a solid opening season in Conference USA, with seven wins and poised for an eighth with UTEP's arrival in Murfreesboro this weekend.
Perhaps most impressive is they've done it with a balanced offense and not just an aerial attack led by Logan Kilgore. And the running back that led them Saturday? He's a freshman, hinting that Rick Stockstill has his program ready to contend for the future.
5. The stage is set for an East Division title-deciding showdown Friday in Huntingdon, W.Va. East Carolina and Marshall will meet with a trip to the C-USA Championship Game on the line, and it promises to be a high-scoring affair. Marshall (43.3 points per game) and ECU (41.5) are the two highest-scoring offenses in the league.
Their quarterbacks, Shane Carden and Rakeem Cato, have each thrown 32 touchdowns against seven interceptions. The game promises to be the must-see tilt of the season in C-USA.