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NCAAF Team Report - North Texas - INSIDE SLANT

The most anticipated game in the entire Conference USA season took a while in arriving, but it's here: East Carolina and Marshall with the East Division title on the line.

But it isn't just the stakes that make this one a must-watch game. It's the quarterbacks. ECU's Shane Carden and Marshall's Rakeem Cato are clearly the league's top two quarterbacks. Both have thrown for 32 touchdowns; both have thrown just seven interceptions.

Carden has the edge, with 325 passing yards a game compared to Cato's 276.5 and his 73 percent completion rate as compared to Cato's 59 percent. Still, they command the league's top two passing offenses, which is why they're the league's top two scoring offenses.

So who has the edge? It might rely on who musters the best run game. That honor goes to Marshall, which has collected 215.6 yards per game on the ground this year, second-most in the conference. ECU is 12th, at 126.5, but has come on as of late. And in fairness, the Pirates haven't necessarily needed a strong rushing attack to get to 9-2 on the season and collect two wins over Atlantic Coast Conference teams (North Carolina and N.C. State).

Marshall's pass defense might have a say, too. The Thundering Herd is second in C-USA in that category, too, giving up just under 200 yards per game and intercepting 14 passes. ECU has also intercepted 14 passes, but is next to last in pass yardage allowed, at 243.4.

"I think we're two evenly-matched football teams," ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. "You can tell by the competition and stats on all three sides of the ball. We have to do a great job in preparation. I keep going back to that because that's the key."

Even with the matchup, it isn't C-USA's only storyline. The winner of the West Division isn't settled yet, either. Rice can win the West with a win over Tulane, but the Green Wave is also a contender. Upstart UTSA can keep its title hopes alive with a home win over Louisiana Tech, too.

So the participants in next week's C-USA title game have yet to be determined. In both East and West, it should be a mad dash to the finish.

East Carolina (9-2, 6-1 C-USA)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at Marshall, Friday, Noon ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--QB Shane Carden was named co-C-USA offensive player of the week last week for the six touchdowns he accounted for in ECU's win at N.C. State. Carden has put up some dizzying passing numbers, but Marshall ought to watch out: He has been scoring on the ground as of late, too.

--ECU's lack of field goal attempts in recent games has not been because of a lack of confidence in a kicker. PK Warren Harvey is available and would've kicked at N.C. State had the opportunity presented itself, coach Ruffin McNeill said.

--WR Justin Hardy has had some big numbers, but has especially had them against Marshall. In two games against the Thundering Herd, Hardy has caught 23 passes for 263 yards.

Florida Atlantic (5-6, 3-4)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. Florida International, Friday, 3 p.m. ET.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--C Mustafa Johnson, one of the team's captains, is believed to be the seventh-oldest player in college football in 2013, according to FAU research. Johnson is 27.

--A big game for RB Jonathan Wallace could vault him up another spot in FAU's career rushing yards chart. He has 1,214 yards, just 108 behind fourth-place Anthony Jackson. Wallace's 294 attempts is one away from fifth place, and his nine touchdowns lacks one to move into a tie for fourth.

--QB Jaquez Johnson has the opportunity to end on a high note a regular season that has seen him have some hiccups but an otherwise improving trajectory. He was named the staff's offensive player of the week three times this season, including in last week's win over New Mexico State.

Florida International (1-10, 1-6)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at Florida Atlantic, Friday, 3 p.m. ET.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--FIU's offensive lineup has been makeshift all year, but in last week's loss to Marshall went back to a three-wide receiver set (as opposed to two tight ends) for the first time all year. WR Fred Porter, a sophomore, made his first start since Sept. 21.

--Sophomore DE Michael Wakefield blocked a field goal in last week's loss to Marshall. FIU has blocked four kicks this season through 11 games. Wakefield also had his second sack of the season.

--QB turned P Jake Medlock had a 43.2-yard average on nine punts last week, proving the coaches' decision to have him take over duties there to be a wise choice.

Louisiana Tech (4-7, 3-4)

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

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--QBs Scotty Young and Ryan Higgins are likely to share time at the end of a disappointing season that has seen them shift on the depth chart at that position. Both have eligibility remaining, so this'll be the final film that coach Skip Holtz will have to make offseason adjustments with. "I think there are some things that they can both work on but we have not been as productive as we need to be at the quarterback position, to play at the level we want to play at this year," Holtz said.

--RB Tevin King remains limited from a high ankle sprain he suffered earlier this year, Holtz said. But in last week's loss to Tulsa, he had 111 yards on 21 carries.

Marshall (8-3, 6-1)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. East Carolina, Friday, Noon ET.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--While East Carolina is full of downfield receivers for Shane Carden, Thundering Herd QB Rakeem Cato has another weapon: TE Gator Hoskins. The senior's 12 touchdown catches leads the FBS among tight ends.

--QB Rakeem Cato's rushing abilities -- four touchdowns, 248 yards -- is perhaps the most worrisome thing to the opposing coach. "He's a quarterback we have to be concerned with as far as mobility and ability to scramble," ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said.

Middle Tennessee (7-4, 5-2)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. UTEP, Saturday, 2:45 p.m. CT.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--QB Logan Kilgore will leave Murfreesboro as one of the school's all-time best quarterbacks, with his name at or near the top of many charts. But to coach Rick Stockstill, it's more important what he's done in the grand scheme of things. "The bottom line is that I'm glad he's got a chance to go out with 17 wins in his final two seasons," Stockstill said. He should have an opportunity to Saturday to rack up yards and points against UTEP's defense.

--Senior LB Stephen Roberts was part of a defense that returned two interceptions for touchdown last week, and that didn't shock him. "We expect to make big plays, so when it comes out and is shown on the field, we aren't really surprised," he said.

--Sophomore LB T.T. Barber is one of just four C-USA players who have recorded 100 or more tackles this season. With a team-high 107, he is third in the conference.

North Texas (7-4, 5-2)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at Tulsa, Saturday, 1:30 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--WR/KR Brelan Chancellor doesn't just easily lead C-USA in return categories, he's among the elite players in the nation. Chancellor's 20.1-yard punt return average is third in the nation behind Auburn's Chris Davis and North Carolina's Ryan Switzer.

--LB Aaron Bellazin's 7.5 sacks continues to lead the entire conference.

--LS Blake Dunham (foot) and S Freddie Warner (arm) may be able to return for this week's game, the Denton Record-Chronicle reported.

Rice (8-3, 6-1)

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

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--RB Charles Ross left last week's win over UAB early with an unknown injury, but he should be able to play this week. Ross is the league's leading rusher at 118.1 yards per game.

--If for some reason he can't go or needs to sit a spell, freshman Jowan Davis proved last week he can be a nice fill-in. Davis had a touchdown and 130 rushing yards in the win at UAB.

--QB Taylor McHargue has operated largely under the radar this year, given Rice's outstanding running backs. But Tulane coach Curtis Johnson views him as the key to this week's game. "The quarterback is what makes their offense go," Johnson said. "He is phenomenal. We have to stop the running game by stopping the quarterback. If we can make this team one-dimensional, I just think we'll have a good shot at winning that game."

Southern Miss (0-11, 0-7)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at UAB, Saturday, Noon CT.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--The Golden Eagles were more efficient in the red zone in last week's loss to Middle Tennessee State, scoring 21 points. That's because of some nice individual plays, coach Todd Monken said, like a third-down catch by WR Dominique Sullivan.

--QB Nick Mullens has caught the eye of UAB coach Garrick McGee despite having a rough start to his USM career. "There is a lot for a true freshman to deal with on a Division I game field," McGee said. "We all know that he is a very accurate passer. He's really good at mid-range passing. I think he's provided a spark for them."

--Freshman DL Dylan Bradley led the team in tackles last week, and coach Todd Monken hopes that improvement will show up this week and beyond. "When he's fresh and rolling, he's capable of making some really explosive plays," Monken said. "He loves to play the game. We're going to continue to build around guys like him and guys who love to play the game."

Tulane (7-4, 5-2)

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

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--TE Matt Marfisi is expected to play Saturday after returning from an injury, coach Curtis Johnson said.

--QB Nick Montana continues to impress in practice after missing time earlier this year due to injury. "I thought Nick threw the ball probably as best as he has since he has been here. Devin (Powell) threw the ball well also," Johnson said. He plans to put Powell into the game in the third series.

--In a league filled with talented kickers, PK Cairo Santos continues to earn praise. He was named the C-USA special teams player of the week after scoring nine point in the Green Wave's blowout win over UTEP last week.

Tulsa (3-8, 2-5)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. North Texas, Saturday, 1:30 p.m. CT.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--Senior LB Shawn Jackson is reaching the end of his career with a disappointing season, but received an accolade this week. Jackson was named C-USA defensive player of the week for his 10-tackle effort in a win at Louisiana Tech. Jackson also had an interception.

--Senior TB Trey Watts is likely to end the year as the league's top rusher. With 1,215 yards, he is 152 yards clear of second-place Charles Ross.

--OL Stetson Burnett spent some time on the injury list this year but returned in last week's win against Louisiana Tech and played admirably, coach Bill Blankenship said. "He performed well. I think he played under his ability because of his injury. We were a man down. For him to play (Saturday) was big," Blankenship said.

UAB (2-9, 1-6)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. Southern Miss, Saturday, Noon CT.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--QB Jonathan Perry will play his final game in Birmingham this week after a career that saw some individual highs but plenty of UAB losses. "I have grown a lot coming to Birmingham from (Baltimore)," Perry said. "I wouldn't change anything about it. It's been the best experience of my life."

--Despite the Blazers' 2-9 record, there's a bit of pride involved in this regional rivalry, senior LB Patrick Bastien said. "For the seniors, we have a four-game winning streak going in against Southern Miss," he said. "It is really important that we win this game."

--Having two running backs -- Jordan Howard and Darrin Reaves -- who have rushed for over 800 yards each has made UAB hard to defend, USM coach Todd Monken said. "I would say that they've built it around their running backs and now their quarterback's ability to run and then work off of play action," he said.

UTEP (2-9, 1-6)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at Middle Tennessee, Saturday, 2:45 p.m. CT.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--Freshman RB Aaron Jones will be dangerous Saturday for MTSU -- and dangerous for quite some time for the rest of the conference. He is the leading freshman rusher in the conference, averaging 90.1 yards per game. That's good enough for fourth-best in the league among players of all classes.

--The Miners will start QB Mack Leftwich, but has "no problem" giving some snaps to Garrett Simpson. As for Simpson's work last week, Kugler was impressed. "I think Garrett's going to be a really good quarterback," Kugler said. "I think he has a lot of talent. Once he learns the on-field management part of being a quarterback and really communicating, he may have more talent than all of the quarterbacks we have.

--Junior WR Jordan Leslie has quietly put together a solid season, important especially since the Miners haven't had continuity at quarterback recently. Leslie has 42 catches for 599 yards with seven touchdowns, which is as many touchdowns as the other receivers combined.

UTSA (6-5, 5-2)

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. Louisiana Tech, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

--QB Eric Soza shared the C-USA offensive player of the week honor with East Carolina QB Shane Carden. Soza had a career-best 30 pass completions in last week's win over North Texas. But more than that, he rushed for two touchdowns, showing off his versatility. "In seven conference games he has thrown four interceptions," Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. "We managed to do that in one half last week."

--RB Evans Okotcha is coming off a season-best game, running for 104 yards and 16 carries against North Texas last week. His rushing efforts bring a dimension to the Roadrunners that makes that offense even harder to defend.

--Leading tackler Tristan Wade, a free safety, has caught the eye of Holtz. "One of their leading tacklers is a free safety who is very aggressive and with quarter coverage, they are downhill," he said. Wade has 86 tackles, nine more than LB Steven Kurfehs.

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NCAAF Team Report - North Texas - NOTES, QUOTES

--Year One under Sean Kugler at UTEP has been an eye-opening experience, even for a coach who came into the job with his eyes wide open. But it's not a totally discouraging one, he said this week. "As you go out through the course of the season, if someone told me beforehand that you're going to lose your starting quarterback, your fullback, your guard and several players and they asked me what the chances for that team to be successful I probably would have said not very good," Kugler said. "So I'm realistic when it comes to that and I'm also encouraged knowing that all of those guys are going to be back."

--A pair of defensive backs are tied for the league lead in interceptions, each with seven as league play enters its final regular season weekend. Tulane sophomore Lorenzo Doss and Florida Atlantic junior D'Joun Smith each have seven picks. Doss has returned two for touchdowns; Smith has returned one.

--A Rice win Saturday would give the Owls a nine-win season for just the second time since 1953. It would also be Rice's first ever berth in the C-USA title game.

--The Tulane-Rice matchup is a game between two of the league's more fortunate teams. Tulane is plus-11 in turnover margin, second in the league, and Rice is plus-7, fourth-best in the conference.

--A pair of Tulsa defenders are poised to finish 1-2 in the conference in tackles. Sophomore LB Michael Mudoh leads the conference with 120 tackles; senior LB Shawn Jackson is just behind with 112.

--The East Carolina-Marshall matchup doesn't solely boil down to a matchup of top quarterbacks. Two of the league's top three punt return men are in the game, too. Marshall senior Devon Smith has a touchdown and a 16.5-yards per return average. ECU's Justin Hardy has an 11.2-yard average.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think the group has decided to have a vision or a goal, and my job is to make sure we understand our process. We have a goal for the team, and this week it's Marshall. The group understands that. They believe in themselves. We can't control anything that Marshall does, but we can control what we do and how we work, and this group understands that." -- ECU coach Ruffin McNeill.

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NCAAF Team Report - North Texas - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH THIS WEEK IN CONFERENCE USA:

1. There's a game within the game in the marquee East Carolina-Marshall matchup, and it involves defense. Just how much will each coordinator pressure the opposing quarterback, knowing how much he can air things out?

And as strategy goes, can Marshall exploit its ability to have a more two-dimensional game? Or will East Carolina be content to throw, throw and throw some more, thinking its superior ability to pass and catch will overshadow its lack of a solid rushing game all year?

2. What does Curtis Johnson have up his sleeve? The Tulane coach got his team off to a 6-2 start and a 4-0 league start largely on getting the right breaks and being way ahead on the turnover margin. In recent losses, that luck has crashed back to earth.

But Johnson saw something in last week's rout of UTEP: He saw his passing offense, in particular, function as well as it has in a long time with a healthy QB Nick Montana. Will that develop into a trend and propel Tulane into the league title game?

3. Can Brian Wright become FAU's permanent head coach? the interim title given to him after Carl Pelini's midseason dismissal has produced three consecutive wins. A fourth would give FAU bowl eligibility. While the competition hasn't been much, there's more excitement around the program now than there was when it was 2-6.

Wright said that uncertainty, though, is not a distraction. "To be quite honest it's not a whole lot different than has been for the last 19 years for me where at the end of the season you're evaluated each year so we are just focused on the game," Wright said.

4. Middle Tennessee ends its regular season with a game against UTEP, one it should win to get to 8-4. But to see how close the Blue Raiders were to a different result is a testament to what Rick Stockstill has instilled in his team.

Let him explain: "To beat Memphis on the last drive, Florida Atlantic in overtime, UAB in the last minute, and Marshall on the last play of the game. You can't win the games we've won without being resilient and without being tough."

5. What about the bowls? Conference USA has placed six teams with six wins already this year and may have eight before the end of the season. Florida Atlantic (5-6) could qualify and UTSA (6-5) could become bowl eligible even though it is transitioning to FBS and part of the conditions of that is that it isn't bowl eligible. But if not enough teams qualify to fit the 70 spots in 35 bowls, UTSA could be in.

As for the other teams, the conference has six slots, with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in line to have the first pick of league teams.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/131127/north-texas-teamreport