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Three Things We Learned From Conference USA — Week 5

Middle Tennessee discovers their running backs, Jacob Cowing is elite and Charlotte’s run defense struggles headline the C-USA weekend.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Through five weeks of play, it’s apparent that week in and week out, we’re going to be in for a result that makes that either makes the gamblers in Vegas (and in Conference USA cities) run for the ticket window — or seek the nearest support hotline. 21-point favorite UTSA left home fans on the edge of their seats for four quarters, barely screeching out a win over winless UNLV.

East division contender Marshall went to Floyd Stadium looking to rebound from a narrow loss to Appalachian State but ended up losing to 10-point underdog Middle Tenneessee, who achieved a rare feat in the process. As a whole, the league took four losses to out of conference teams, but also saw UTEP take another step towards a bowl game, Rice possibly finds a quarterback and Florida Atlantic continue their dominance over rival FIU.

Let’s take a look at what we learned over the weekend in C-USA.

Rick Stockstill Finds His Run Game

In MTSU’s upset victory over East division foe Marshall, Rick Stockstill’s Blue Raiders managed a feat that they’ve only accomplished twice since the start of the 2019 season — a 100-yard rushing day from the running backs. While MTSU did see over 1,700 rushing yards come from Blue Raider quarterbacks over the past two seasons, their rushing attack as a whole ranked ninth among C-USA teams over the same span.

Redshirt junior running back Chaton Mobley was the last MTSU back to top 600 yards in a season (2018) since 2016. Which makes it fitting that the fifth-year junior provided his team with a 15-carry, 132-yard day in MTSU’s 34-28 victory over the Herd. Stockstill spoke about wanting to get his running backs more involved in the offense at the outset of the season, but struggled to get production as a whole during their first four games, amassing just 286 yards. With the East division being wide open as teams begin conference play, if Stockstill’s club is going to have a chance at a surprise run, they’ll need consistency from their backs.

Charlotte’s Run Defense is Bad

As mentioned above, C-USA’s East division hasn’t shown any runaway favorites through five games. Last year’s division champ in Marshall are off to a 2-3 start, Florida Atlantic appears to be hitting their stride after an ugly loss at Air Force and Western Kentucky looks to get into the mix as they open conference play this weekend. Seated at the top of the division for the time being are Will Healy’s Charlotte 49ers, who have looked impressive at times in their 3-2 start, but have a glaring deficiency that could torpedo any chance of sustained success over a 12-game slate — run defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Charlotte at Illinois
Charlotte Co-DC Marcus West will look to solve his defense’s struggles against the run.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Niners are allowing an eye-popping 254.6 yards per game on the ground. While that number should decrease to an extent over a full season, as is, that number would be the most allowed by a C-USA defense since Florida Atlantic allowed 245.4 over 12 games in 2016. In Charlotte’s 24-14 loss to Illinois, they gave up 336 rushing yards to a Fighting Illini team that were among the bottom third in FBS football in rushing. With emerging talents like Grant DuBose and Calvin Camp on the offensive side of the ball, along with veterans Victor Tucker and quarterback Chris Reynolds, there’s enough talent to think that Healy’s team are capable of beating any team remaining on its schedule — if they can find a way to plug their run defense holes. They’ll have an opportunity to make a statement this Friday against an FIU team that they’ve never beaten in five attempts, who feature one of C-USA’s most talented backs in D’Vonte Price.

Rice’s Quarterback Carousel Continues

We revisit Rice’s struggling offense because there’s been a major development — the Owls may have stumbled into a steady hand at the quarterback position. The word stumbled feels appropriate given the fact that former Weber State and Boise State quarterback Jake Constantine arrived in Houston this offseason expecting to take over the signal-calling duties, but the late addition of former Nebraska quarterback Luke McCaffrey threw a wrench in those plans. After McCaffrey and Wiley Green combined for two touchdowns and six interceptions in the Owls’ first four games, Constantine provided what was easily the team’s most steady performance through the air, going 16-of-22 for 192 yards with two touchdowns and most importantly — no interceptions.

Rice v Texas
Jake Constantine provided Rice with a semblance of a passing attack in their win over Southern Miss.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

What ensued was Rice earning a 24-19 win over struggling Southern Miss. With seven games left, the success or lackthereof could play a major factor in deciding the future of Mike Bloomgren’s tenure as head coach at Rice. If they can find a few more wins, there’s reason to feel comfortable bringing Bloomgren back for a fifth season. Should the offensive futility return and the Owls are not able to top Bloomgren’s three-win 2019 campaign, change could be in the works.