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Three things we learned from Conference USA in Week 13

Will Healy has the Niners bowl-eligible in year one, Butch Davis has some Orange Bowl magic left and Louisiana Tech makes a tough choice.

Marshall v Charlotte Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Week 12 in Conference USA saw two teams dramatically reach bowl-eligibility, the unceremonious end of an era and division races still being up for grabs.

Let’s take a look back at the three things we learned from C-USA’s penultimate week in the 2019 season.

Will Healy has Charlotte bowl-eligible for the first time in program history

When Will Healy took over the Charlotte job in December of 2018, the major question was what type of fit would the then-33-year-old be for a program still in its relative infancy among the college football landscape.

The answer - Healy’s youthful enthusiasm has been the perfect choice to lead the young Niners’ football team.

In his first season at the helm (and first season as an FBS head coach), he’s led Charlotte to bowl-eligibility, following their 24-13 victory Marshall on Saturday.

Quarterback Chris Reynolds rushed for a game-high 145 yards - his second 100-yard rushing day in three weeks - as he’s proving to be one of the league’s top dual-threat signal-callers.

Benny Lemay hit the century mark on the ground for the 13th time in his career, as he eclipses 3,000 rushing yards and DE/LB Alex Highsmith had a sack to put him a half-sack behind Western Kentucky’s Deangelo Malone for the lead in C-USA.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Charlotte at Western Kentucky
Benny Lemay has been the best player in 49er program history.
Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As a team, the Niners score 14 unanswered points in the final quarter, then players and fans stormed the field to celebrate the historic occasion.

At C-USA Media Days in July, I spoke to Healy about the task of establishing an identity at Charlotte.

“There’s still places that have more of tradition when we go out to recruit, we’re not cool yet, we’re going to get there, but we’re not there right now,” said Healy.

Fast forward just four months later and it’s safe to say he’s well on his way to attaining his goal. The 49ers picked up two three-star recruits over the weekend and according to 247 Sports, have a top-four class among C-USA teams.

I was optimistic about Charlotte entering the season because of the eagerness that Healy showed in looking to hit the ground running, in conjunction with the returning talent that was already in place.

It’s safe to say that his energy and brand of coaching may have unearthed a proverbial goldmine in the Carolinas.

A trip down memory lane may have salvaged FIU’s 2019 season

For six seasons, Butch Davis was the head coach at the University of Miami and in that timespan, he laid the foundation for arguably the greatest college football team of all-time - the 2001 National Champion Miami Hurricanes.

From 1995-2000, Davis led the Hurricanes’ resurgence to the top of the college football landscape.

However, Davis left Miami the year before, taking the NFL’s Cleveland Browns head coach position. Ever since, he’s lived with a level of “what-if” he had stayed at Miami.

6,937 days following his last regular-season win at the site of Saturday’s contest between FIU and Miami, Davis’ Panthers pulled off what may have been the biggest upset of the C-USA year and undoubtedly the biggest win in program history, when FIU beat Miami 30-24.

Nearly 20 years to the day of his last victory on the ground of the old Miami Orange Bowl Stadium, Davis reflected on the events of the evening.

“Driving in, taking 826 to 836 (the roads leading to Marlins Park) and getting off at the exit, it stirred up the emotions,” said Davis postgame.

Miami v Florida International
19 years after leaving the Hurricanes, Davis is back in Miami with FIU.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As for his players on the field - the oldest of which were five years old the last time he was a head coach at the site, weren’t intimidated by a partisan Hurricane crowd that turned FIU’s final “home” game of the year into their toughest playing environment in Davis’ three seasons with the program.

After being booed during their entrance to the field, FIU had to routinely fight off crowd noise on offense, coming close to multiple delay of game penalties. Despite the circumstances, it was the Panthers who responded to the challenge of a Power Five opponent.

Cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver intercepted Miami on their first offensive drive, sparking the way for three defensive interceptions on the evening, while C-USA’s preseason pick of Defensive Player of the Year in Sage Lewis had 10 tackles and an interception in the win.

However, he saved his strongest statement for postgame.

“All week, we were calling them (Miami) Coral Gables University, we’re the real Miami University,” said Lewis.

For FIU, the win may have salvaged what had been an otherwise disappointing season. A trendy choice to win the East division, many of the same issues that plagued the Panthers’ 2018, showed themselves this season.

That makes Saturday’s result all the more noteworthy, as the performance of both the offensive and defensive line, in addition to keeping the Hurricane rushing attack under 175 yards, made for victory over their crosstown rival.

Louisiana Tech makes a tough call

Nine days ago, Louisiana Tech looked to be in the driver’s seat among the jam-packed West division’s caravan of contenders.

They were 8-1 entering a Friday game against a Marshall team who were also competing for a division crown in the east. Then, less than 48 hours before kickoff, it was announced that three starters - quarterback J’Mar Smith, receiver Adrian Hardy, and linebacker James Jackson had been suspended due to an athletic department policy violation. Smith and Hardy would be ineligible for two games, while Jackson would miss one.

DXL Frisco Bowl - Louisiana Tech v SMU
Skip Holtz has had bowl success in Ruston, but hasn’t been able to win a conference title.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Since that decision, the Bulldogs have gone 0-2 and now are dependent on a UAB loss against North Texas on Saturday to potentially have a chance at making the C-USA title game.

Holtz’s team lost to Marshall nine days ago and to UAB by a score of 20-13 on Saturday, placing them in a tie with the Blazers. While both games would have been tough contests on paper, there’s no denying that having Smith and Hardy would have greatly enhanced Tech’s chances of winning.

Smith, who has battled inconsistent play on the field since taking over for Ryan Higgins as the starting quarterback in 2017, looked to have turned the corner this season. He was completing 65% of his passes - eight percentage points higher than the previous two year combined and had thrown just four interceptions.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Southern Miss at Louisiana Tech
J’Mar Smith has been suspended for the previous two games.
Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Instead, Holtz was forced to turn to redshirt freshman Aaron Allen, who has performed as expected of a young signal-caller in the two starts.

As has been seen before across the college football landscape, Louisiana Tech and Holtz could have found other ways to punish the players, or only suspended Smith and Hardy for one game.

But they chose the two-game punishment instead, doing so amid the most crucial stretch of their season. As a result, Tech may miss out on getting that elusive C-USA title - and maybe that will set a precedent for others.