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Three Things We Learned From Conference USA — Week 1

Charlotte’s defensive woes continue, FAU takes a step backward and FIU’s thrilling opening night.

Middle Tennessee v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

All 11 Conference USA teams were saw action in last week’s official kickoff to the college football season and there were multiple storylines to follow during three days of play. FIU and UTSA played in a pair of contests that came down to wire while several other teams provided an insight as to what may be worth keeping an eye on once conference play is in fully swing.

UAB interim head coach Bryant Vincent’s tenure got off to an excellent start as the Blazers steamrolled in-state foe Alabama A&M 59-0 despite star running back DeWayne McBride being a late scratch due to illness. All-purpose back Jermaine Brown Jr. rushed for a career-high 114 yards in the victory, solidifying the Blazers’ one-two punch in the backfield.

Tyson Helton’s Western Kentucky team bounced back from a sluggish start to the season against FCS Austin Peay in week zero, trouncing Hawaii 49-17 behind three Austin Reed touchdown passes. The Division II transfer is second amongst FBS players in touchdown passes with seven.

With another week of non-conference play upcoming, let’s take a look at the Three Things We Learned from the Conference USA weekend.

Charlotte’s Defensive Woes

When Will Healy took over as Niners’ head coach in 2019, one of the main points of emphasis was inserting a jolt of life to a Charlotte program that was in need of an energy transfusion. After a 2-4 start in his first season, Healy rattled off five straight wins to finish the season 7-5 and earn the school’s first-ever bowl berth.

While that success earned Healy and the program well-deserved praise, there’s been one consistent red flag through the successful period and the 6-13 record that the program has since the end of the ‘19 season.

Charlotte ranks 11th out of 14 teams who participated in C-USA play over the past three years in points allowed per game. 2019’s 32.4 points per game allowed (103rd in FBS) went under the radar due to win streak at the end of the season and what appeared to be development in a new scheme under co-DC’s Marcus West and Brandon Cooper.

2020’s 32.5 average (88th in FBS) can easily be forgotten in what was a peculiar season for many programs because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the Niners only played in six games. 2021 saw the end of West and Cooper’s tenures with the program after another season of being among the bottom third of FBS teams in points per game (34.0 — 114th in FBS).

After two games in 2022, Charlotte has allowed 84 points which includes a 41-point performance by FCS William and Mary in Saturday’s 41-24 loss at Jerry Richardson Stadium. The 0-2 start is alarming on its own for Healy, but the defensive woes aren’t a new issue and may be ones that first-year defensive coordinator Greg Brown can’t fix. What is a fact is Alex Highsmith, Jeff Gemmell and Ben DeLuca aren’t walking back through the doors of the Judy Rose Football Center. If the Niners are going to be able to salvage this start to the season, it’s going to be up to the pieces they have on the roster.

Middle Tennessee’s Six-Year Run Problem

It’s impossible to judge this year’s Middle Tennessee team off of Saturday’s 44-7 loss to James Madison. However, you can pull one facet of the loss out of the bunch and see a trend that spans back over several seasons.

The Blue Raiders rushed for 31 yards on 20 carries from the running backs and a total of 12 yards on 28 attempts when including quarterback Chase Cunningham’s sack yardage. Since the 2017 season, the highest rushing output from MTSU running backs for a season is Chaton Mobley’s 617-yard season in 2018. Middle Tennessee has had highs of 208, 366, and 372 yards rushing in 2019, 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Blue Raiders’ head coach Rick Stockstill has more than open about the need for more production from his team’s rushing game via the backs.

“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 during 2021’s media day. “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.”

That season would see his team average just 123 yards on the ground.

If the Blue Raiders are going to be able to contend for a bowl berth this season, they can’t rely on quarterback Chase Cunningham and a defensive output similarly to last season, especially given all of the departures from last year’s team.

The FIU Rebuild

Ever since the introduction of Scott Carr as athletic director and Mike MacIntyre as head coach in December on 2021, the entire FIU Athletics department has been squarely focused on the start of “A New Day.”

A home crowd that was easily the most sizable since the 2018 Shula Bowl reflected the work that they’ve put in is paying off immediate dividends. The product on the field in MacIntyre’s debut as the lead Panther showed what most knew but didn’t want to say out loud — the FIU rebuild is undoubtedly a work in progress.

With that being said, the Panthers did show one major difference from the teams of the previous two seasons — they didn’t let the game get away from there. After being down two scores, FIU managed its biggest comeback since 2018’s comeback victory at Old Dominion, defeating FCS Bryant 38-37 in what was arguably the most thrilling C-USA game of the weekend.

One of the top players in C-USA, FIU wideout Tyrese Chambers hauled in two touchdown receptions, including a key score in overtime that made the game 37-36 — followed by a game-winning two-point conversion try.

While there were still plenty of issues that will need to be addressed, the Panthers earned their first win in 364 days in front of a home crowd that was the largest in several years. For Carr and MacIntyre, seeing evidence that their offseason efforts resulted in success is a building block that shouldn’t be taken for granted.