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Three Things We Learned From Conference USA — Week 3

MTSU’s quarterback quandary continues, Louisiana Tech’s pass defense struggles and Grant Wells lead our three things.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Virginia Tech Ryan Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Week three was far from a banner weekend of play in Conference USA. The league went 1-7 in out-of-conference play with the lone victory being Florida Atlantic’s second-half explosion over FCS Fordham.

A pair of heartbreaking losses in Lousiana Tech’s last-second loss to SMU along with Marshall allowing a 21-point fourth quarter to lose against East Carolina were the closest contests. FIU and Rice were outscored by a combined 112-21 in their losses to Big 12 opponents Texas Tech and Texas, respectively. Let’s take a look a the three things we learned from the weekend in C-USA.

Marshall is in Good Shape — Maybe

When Charles Huff took over for Doc Holliday after Holliday’s 11-year run as head coach of the Herd, the belief was that the program could reach a new ceiling after hitting a plateau under their former head man. Through three games, there’s no reason to believe that the Herd won’t be in the thick of things in the C-USA East race. However, games like Saturday are the ones that Marshall fans are come out on the right side of. The loss aside, the Herd have answered many questions that fans and media alike had entering the season.

Defensive stalwarts like Nazeeh Johnson and Steven Gilmore have continued their excellent play in 2021. They’ve been helped by the emergence of Abraham Beauplan and Koby Cumberlander in giving the Herd a formidable defense, notwithstanding the 368 yards allowed to ECU’s mercurial quarterback, Holton Ahlers. Quite possibly the most pleasant surprise has been running back Rasheen Ali, who has followed up a four-touchdown opening day with 24 carries for 189 yards and three scores in the loss.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Florida Atlantic at Marshall
Rasheen Ali has taken over where Brendan Knox left off in Huntington.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This brings us to quarterback Grant Wells. Much has been made of his subpar finish to last season — with good reason. Wells has performed admirably through three games, but this team will go as far as his quarterback play takes them. After forcing a three-and-out in the first quarter, Marshall had an opportunity to take a two-score lead, only to see Wells throw an interception. East Carolina cashed in and took a 14-10 advantage — significant when you look at the 42-38 final score. Marshall appears to have all of the necessary pieces to contend with Florida Atlantic in the East — if Grant Wells can provide steady play.

Bailey Hockman Walks Away from Football

Late Tuesday afternoon, news broke out of Murfreesboro that MTSU’s Bailey Hockman had chosen to leave the Blue Raider football program.

The news was somewhat surprising, given Hockman’s transfer to Middle Tennessee in the offseason and subsequent starting role, having started all three games this season, albeit, having to rotate snaps with Chase Cunningham in multiple contests. However, it was later learned that Hockman is choosing to walk away from football, as he is expecting a newborn child. Strictly from a football perspective, this leaves Rick Stockstill in somewhat of an awkward situation. Hockman was brought to the program in an effort to shift away from the offensive style of play the previous two seasons, under former offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and ex-QB Asher O’Hara.

When I asked Stockstill during C-USA Media Days how the move would impact his offense, he was emphatic about the need for MTSU to have more dynamic plays out of the run game as receivers.

“We have to improve our running game overall as last year we averaged only 135 yards per game rushing and only 66 of those came from the running backs,” said Stockstill. “We’ll still get some quarterback runs but not nearly as much as we have the past two seasons, we have to become more balanced with our backs getting the rushing yards and improve our passing game.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Troy at Middle Tennessee
Chase Cunningham will take over at QB for MTSU.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Currently, Stockstill’s club sits at 1-2 and there have been mixed results in both categories. Through three games, MTSU is averaging a frightening 56.7 yards per game on the ground. The 240.3 yards through the air is already a shade better than the two-season average of 236.2 with O’Hara under center. Now, Cunningham will take over and at 5-11, 190-pounds, resembles Stockstill’s former starter more than the 6-2, 220-pound Hockman. What’s clear is the Blue Raiders need more out of their offense, if they’re going to have any chance at returning to a bowl game.

Lousiana Tech’s Surprising Problem

The aforementioned loss for Louisiana Tech stings, not only because of the manner with which they lost, but the fact that they allowed 395 yards passing in the process. Those types of numbers were expected from a high-powered SMU team. However, in the last two weeks, Skip Holtz’ club has given up 890 yards through the air. In the team’s 45-42 win over Southeastern Louisiana, quarterback Cole Kelley went 44-of-59 for 495 yards with three touchdowns.

Yes, Kelley is a former Power Five player, beginning his career at Arkansas, but the fact remains that Tech has been a steady defense, especially against the pass in previous seasons. Last year, the Bulldogs ranked 58th in the nation against the pass, they allowed a respectable 240 yards per game passing. With a talent like Bee Jay Williamson in the secondary and capable players in the front seven, La Tech will need to see a vast improvement or else they’ll be fighting to reach a bowl this season.