Week three in Conference USA provided somewhat of a mixed bag during the final weekend of non-conference games as teams now set their sights on league play. Of the 10 conference teams that saw action, four took home victories which included Rice’s upset of Louisiana after entering the game as heavy underdogs and Chris Reynolds’ return spurred Charlotte to their first win of the season over Georgia State. However, there were a few disappointing performances by programs who will look to right the ship quickly to prevent their seasons from getting away from them.
Florida Atlantic’s much-hyped matchup with in-state foe UCF saw the Owls race out to an early first quarter lead in front of a sold-out FAU Stadium. However, Willie Taggart’s club squandered several opportunities on offense to keep pace with the Knights, leading to a 40-14 loss. Dana Dimel’s club suffered an equally disappointing loss against New Mexico in a game that leaves the Miners with even more questions as they look at a C-USA schedule that includes several challenging contests.
Tyson Helton’s Western Kentucky club appeared to be on the verge of a Power Five victory in Bloomington against Indiana, but the Hilltoppers squandered an 11-point, fourth quarter lead, falling to the Hoosiers in overtime 33-30, despite outgaining Indiana by over 100 yards and getting a 100-yard day from running back Kye Robichaux.
Let’s take a look back at the weekend that was and the Three Things We Learned from Conference USA.
UTEP’s Offensive Woes
At Conference USA’s Media Days in July, I asked UTEP head coach Dana Dimel about the progression of quarterback Gavin Hardison, who was entering his third-year as the Miners starter and his second season in offensive coordinator Dave Warner’s system.
“We have all the confidence in the world in Gavin, he’s really experienced in our program and he has full autonomy of the offense,” said Dimel. “He is in full control of our offense and we’re expecting a big year from him.”
I asked about Hardison specifically because there was little doubt that despite the talent on both sides of the ball, the Miners’ successes would rest squarely on Hardison taking the next step in his development as a signal-caller.
Unfortunately for Miners’ fans, the offense has struggled to start the year and no player has struggled more than Hardison. He’s completing just 48% of his passes and his 6.1 yards per completion are the lowest of his career. In UTEP’s 27-10 loss to New Mexico, Hardison threw three interceptions and the UTEP offense had seven turnovers overall.
There’s little doubt that the departure of star wideout Jacob Cowing is affecting the UTEP offense — as Cowing is currently leading his Arizona Wildcat team in all major statistical receiving categories. However, the Hardison is resembling the inconsistent player he was in his first year as a starter — not a third-year player. If UTEP is going to be able to turn things around, Hardison’s play is going to be the deciding factor.
Has Rice Found a Quarterback
During Mike Bloomgren’s tenure as Rice head coach, the quarterback position has been a proverbial revolving door, with transfers serving as the primary quarterback in each of Bloomgren’s four seasons. Entering his fifth campaign, Bloomgren announced that Wiley Green, a member of Bloomgren’s first recruiting class, would be the opening day starter.
However, Green suffered an arm injury in the Owls’ season-opener against Southern California, opening the door for former Mississippi walk-on and Cerritos College transfer T.J. McMahon to assume the reigns. The junior who saw playing time sparingly during his first two Rice campaigns has thrown for 642 yards and seven touchdowns in a little over two games worth of work, including three touchdowns in Rice’s upset of Sun Belt power Louisiana on Saturday at Rice Stadium.
Because of the multitude of quarterbacks that have appeared for the Owls over the last four years, the most passing yards thrown for in a season by a Rice signal-caller during Bloomgren’s tenure is 1,622 yards, accomplished last year by Jake Constantine. If McMahon can stay healthy, he showed easily eclipse that number and most importantly for Bloomgren — he may have finally solved his quarterback riddle — something that will help the Owls immeasurably as they attempt to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2014.
After biding his time behind former UAB star running back Spencer Brown, Blazers’ junior running back DeWayne McBride has emerged over the past two seasons as one of the top running backs amongst the Group of Five ranks and in college football as a whole.
The Starke, Florida native was a three-star prospect coming out in 2019 and had interest from several G5 programs and moderate Power Five interest from the likes of Rutgers and Purdue, but chose to head to Birmingham. All he’s done in his time with the program is average over seven yards per carry and rush for over 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns.
His talents were ever apparent in UAB’s 35-21 victory over a surprising Georgia Southern team on Saturday. With the Eagles coming off an upset victory over Nebraska and looking for a 3-0 start to their season, McBride powered the UAB offense when they needed it most. He scored from one and 31 yards out to help Bryant Vincent’s club get out to an early lead and when Georgia Southern looked as if they may be able to make a comeback — Vincent turned to McBride — adding two more scores on the day to finish the game with 223 yards and four touchdowns.
While this may not be the most talented UAB team on paper over the past few years, they still have more than enough talent to contend for a conference title and leading the way will be McBride.