Conference USA’s penultimate week of play provided a four-game slate, with the highlight of Saturday’s schedule easily being Rice’s upset of No. 15 Marshall. Not only did the victory provide Mike Bloomgren with his first signature win, it also gave Florida Atlantic hope for back-to-back East division titles as the C-USA championship game participants will come down to the final week of action. Let’s take a look back at the weekend that was in C-USA.
“Signature win” for Mike Bloomgren
Since arriving at Rice in 2018, head coach Mike Bloomgren has been attempting to change the culture and philosophy of the Owls’ program. His debut season saw a team vastly overmatched on most Saturdays go 2-11. 2019’s 3-9 finish came with a much-improved defensive unit and four of the nine losses decided by one score or less. Entering 2020, there was realistic hope that the Owls’ could push for a C-USA West division crown — before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out a majority of the their schedule. After an improbable opening-week loss to Middle Tennessee in overtime, Rice came into Saturday’s contest at 1-1 and 12-point underdogs against an undefeated No.15 Marshall team.
They left Huntington with a resounding 20-0 victory, showing that Bloomgren’s rebuild in Houston is heading in the right direction. The win was the Owls first victory against a ranked opponent since 1997 and their first road win against a ranked opponent since 1991. If Rice can get steady quarterback play from Mike Collins and a potential return of wideouts Austin Trammell and Brad Rozner, expect Rice to be a contender in the West next season.
Quarterback woes doom Marshall
Redshirt freshman Grant Wells has played excellent football for Marshall at the quarterback position. Entering the weekend, he had thrown for 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions — a far cry from the turnover problems that plagued former starter Isaiah Green. Wells’ ability to protect the football along with stellar play from running back Brendan Knox and the Herd’s defense propelled them to an undefeated record.
However, turnovers showed themselves at the most inopportune time for Doc Holliday as Wells was picked off five times, including a Naeem Smith pick-six midway through the fourth quarter that sealed the 20-0 victory for Rice. While Wells is still a promising player who has his best football ahead of him, another season for the Herd will end in questions of what could have been.
Florida Atlantic has short-term hope — but long-term questions
Marshall’s loss to Rice not only eliminated any fleeting hope of being the Group of Five representative in a New Year’s Six bowl game, it also opened the door for FAU to have an opportunity to repeat as East division champs. Should Marshall lose Friday’s home game against Charlotte and FAU beat Southern Miss in Hattiesburg on Thursday, Willie Taggart’s club will be crowned as the winners of the East. In a season that’s seen a depleted Owls’ team push Marshall on the road and face multiple game postponements and cancellations, a division title would serve not only as an achievement for the program — but a statement to the rest of the East. However, Taggart’s long-term success will hinge on whether the Owls can find quarterback play that matches the talent level across the rest of his roster.
Redshirt freshman Javion Posey struggled in the team’s 20-3 loss to Georgia Southern, going 7-of-15 for 107 yards and two interceptions before being replaced by Nick Tronti. The game served as Posey’s third career start and he’s shown flashes of being an effective starter for FAU. But given the one-time transfer rule that’s expected to pass in January, Taggart will have a litany of options to upgrade the position in the transfer portal. The Owls will be a strong contender for another conference title in 2021 and beyond — if the quarterback play is up to par.