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Three things we learned from Conference USA in Week 12

Doc Holliday keeps on winning, Rice finally gets one and Jay Hopson’s second choice pays off.

NCAA Football: Rice at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

It was a condensed week of Conference USA football during week 12, with only four contests taking place.

Despite the small slate, we still learned a fair amount across the landscape of the eight teams who took the field.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the weekend’s games.

Jay Hopson’s Second Choice Pays Off

In mid-January, Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson lost his offensive coordinator of three seasons, when Shannon Dawson decided to take an offensive assistant position at the University of Houston.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Louisiana Tech at Southern Miss
Jay Hopson’s choice has paid dividends for Southern Miss.
Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The move rejoined Dawson with Dana Holgerson, who he coached under from 2011-2014 and left Hopson in search of a new OC.

At the beginning of February, reports surfaced that former Baylor head coach Art Briles interviewed for the position. Amid a social media outcry and a public rebuke from University President Rodney Bennett and Interim Athletic Director Jeff Mitchell, Briles’ name was removed from candidacy.

Quietly, Buster Faulkner was hired for the position in mid-February, roughly three weeks after the Briles misstep.

Fast forward to today and the decision to go with Faulkner has paid off for the Golden Eagles, who moved to 7-3 on the year following a 36-17 victory over UTSA on Saturday. Southern Miss’ offense ranks fourth in total offense and leads C-USA in passing offense, averaging 297.5 yards per game through the air.

The biggest beneficiary of Faulkner’s arrival has been quarterback Jack Abraham.

Last season, Abraham was one of the nation’s most accurate passers, completing 73.1 percent of his throws. However, his yards per attempt was pedestrian (7.7) at best.

Through 10 games, Abraham has completed six fewer passes than he did in the entirety of last season, but he has almost 600 more passing yards. His 9.5 yards per attempt ranks first in C-USA and receivers Quez Watkins, Tim Jones and Jaylond Adams have benefited as a result.

Rice Finally Gets Their First Win

In Rice’s two-win season last year, despite being behind on the scoreboard for the majority of the season, they continued to play hard for first-year head coach Mike Bloomgren.

Through the first nine contests of 2019, it was a matter of putting together four quarters of consistent football and having enough depth to get a win.

After an 0-9 start that saw the team lose six of those games by two-scores or less, Bloomgren’s club picked up their first win of the year, upsetting Middle Tennessee on the road by a final score of 31-28.

The victory is huge for two reasons, first, and arguably most important being that the team finally can stop looking for moral victories after numerous close defeats. The second is that they have a legitimate chance to equal last year’s win total, as they face UTEP on the final week of the season.

For Bloomgren, his rebuild of Rice hasn’t resulted in wins immediately. However, what’s been clear is that the team does respond to him and hasn't folded, despite the losses piling up.

It can be argued that the Owls’ depth has been hurt more than any other Conference USA program during Bloomgren’s tenure. Starting with the departure of All-Conference tackle Calvin Anderson to Texas entering last year, Rice has lost key members such as receiver Aaron Cephus and running back Emmanuel Esukpa to transfer or dismissal.

Like It Or Not, Marshall Leads the East

Despite being picked to win Conference USA’s East Division by the media entering the season, Marshall felt more like an afterthought, compared to the trendy pick of FIU, or Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic.

However, as we enter the penultimate week of the regular season, it’s Doc Holliday’s Thundering Herd atop the division. Marshall comes off a 31-10 victory over West division-leading Louisiana Tech.

The win wasn’t without some controversy, as Tech suspended starting quarterback J’Mar Smith, receiver Adrian Hardy and linebacker James Jackson before the game. Whether or not that made a difference, time will tell, especially if we get to see these two programs at full strength for a C-USA title game.

What can’t be debated is that Marshall deserves credit for beating three of the league’s best teams in Tech, FAU, and Western Kentucky in the past month.

Now, with the tiebreaker in-hand having defeated the second-place Owls earlier in the year, The Herd control their own destiny. Should they defeat Charlotte and FIU in their final two outings, Holliday will be on to his third division title as head coach in Huntington.

Arguably the biggest keys to getting those two victories will be the play of quarterback Isaiah Green and running back Brenden Knox.

Knox has gone from non-existent on the depth chart to leading C-USA in rushing, with his 1,046 yards on the season, while Green has to continue to play steady and limit the mistakes.

Marshall v Florida International
Obi Obialo’s return gives Marshal a legit number one receiver.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

He received a giant addition at the receiver position last week, as Obi Obialo made his season debut in Friday’s win. After missing the first nine games with an injury, Obialo hauled in eight catches for 146 yards. His return could be the final piece to take Marshall over the top in the East.