Week eight in Conference USA provided us with the first weekend since early September that didn’t have a scheduled game postponed or canceled due to COVID. A season-high eight C-USA teams took the field with Rice and Middle Tennessee State providing what may be the game of the year in the league. Marshall moves into the top-20 following their 20-9 victory over Florida Atlantic and Western Kentucky narrowly escapes a loss to FCS Chattanooga.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the three things we learned from a full slate in C-USA.
FIU is in trouble
Entering the season, FIU head coach Butch Davis was cautiously optimistic about his team’s chances but also emphasized that the Panthers practice schedule had been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fast forward to last weekend, and the Panthers are off to an 0-3 start with more questions than answers.
After losing their first two games by a combined five points, the Panthers fell to FCS Jacksonville State 19-10 in a game that saw the Gamecocks dominate nearly the entire contest. FIU had only six first downs and 156 total yards on offense to JSU’s 26 and 444, respectively. Postgame, Davis revealed to what extent his team was shorthanded.
“Between injuries and COVID we were down 24 players and we lost a few more tonight,” said Davis when I asked him about the missing players. Left tackle D’Antne Demery and last year’s leading receiver Shemar Thornton watched the loss from the front row of the Riccardo Silva Stadium student section while five other starters were unavailable.
Outside of the injuries, FIU’s biggest concern has to be their quarterback situation. Redshirt freshman Stone Norton and Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager split reps but combined to go 7-of-19 for 84 yards and Norton added a TD pass. Davis has rotated three quarterbacks this season, but the Panthers haven’t thrown for more than 150 yards in a game this year.
Arguably the most alarming stat — since FIU’s 30-24 upset of crosstown Miami last November — the team has gone 0-5 and welcome Marshall to town on Friday.
Area Code 210 is the key for UTSA
Frank Wilson’s tenure at UTSA was undeniably underwhelming with a final record of 19-29 at the helm of the Roadrunners. A large source of the frustration around the program had to do with Wilson’s reputation as a recruiter which was earned from his time at LSU. Despite bringing in talent, he wasn’t able to translate that to wins on the field.
Insert former Arkansas assistant Jeff Traylor as HC and he’s been able to guide the Roadrunners to immediate success, spurred by two hometown stars for UTSA. Sixteen miles from the Alamodome lies Judson High School, which produced two of the top players for UTSA, running back Sincere McCormick and safety Rashad Wisdom.
The 5-9, 200-pound McCormick has followed up his C-USA Freshman of the Year campaign by leading the nation in rushing yards per game through week eight, including a 37 carry, 165-yard performance against Louisiana Tech. Wisdom is among the league leaders in tackles (50) and has been excellent in pass coverage as well. UTSA trailed by two scores with just under seven minutes to play when McCormick had two of his three rushing TDs in the fourth quarter to give the Roadrunners a 27-26 victory.
After being delayed for almost two months, Rice finally took the field for the first time in 2020 on Saturday against a 1-5 Middle Tennessee State team. TCU transfer Mike Collins made his debut for the Owls, throwing for 242 yards and four touchdowns and linebacker Blaze Alldredge tallied 13 tackles.
For the Blue Raiders, quarterback Asher O’Hara had a breakout game with over 400 all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns, while safeties Reed Blankenship and Gregory Grate Jr. each had 14 tackles.
MTSU entered the third quarter with a 14-13 advantage and stretched the lead to 15 points with 5:34 left before Collins connected with receiver Austin Trammell to cut the lead to nine. The Owls proceeded to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including what appeared to be a game-sealing 34-yard TD pass to Trammell with 34 seconds left.
Following a short kickoff, MTSU drove 35 yards to allow kicker Crews Holt to hit a career-long 48-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
Then, things got interesting.
Rice just basically kneeled three straight plays and kicked a 45 yard fg for the win in OT and this happened. pic.twitter.com/EyxpYfrfSS— Matthew Brune (@MatthewBrune_) October 24, 2020
Rice kicker Collin Riccitelli attempted a 45-yard field goal that would have won the game — only to see the kick bounce of the goalpost four times and fall short. On the ensuing drive, O’Hara scored from 14 yards out to give MTSU their second win of the year.
For all that MTSU has endured through the early part of the season, their 2-5 record still allows them a shot at a winning record and they may have played in C-USA’s game of the year.