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What to Watch for in Conference USA Games This Week

Big intersectional games and the race for the Conference USA title make this an exciting week in the Underdog Dynasty.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Texas El Paso
UTEP’s Aaron Jones is the leading rusher in Conference USA and ranks fourth in the nation.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Florida International (2-4, 2-0) @ Charlotte (2-4, 1-1)

Last week, FIU traveled to El Paso and came away with a 35-21 win to snap a streak of seven straight road losses.

For the Golden Panthers, it was a tale of two Alex's as quarterback Alex McGough was 21-31 for 241 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, and running back Alex Gardner rushed for 141 yards.

Charlotte was also on the road as the 49ers edged Florida Atlantic 28-23 in a game that was rescheduled a day later because of Hurricane Matthew. The win broke a three-game losing streak for the 49ers. Kalif Phillips rushed for 132 yards while sophomore quarterback Hasaan Klugh got his first start and finished 14-17 for 223 yards and three touchdowns. Klugh is 32-44 (72.7 percent) with five touchdowns and one interception.

Although Alex Gardner of FIU is the nation’s 26th-ranked ball carrier, Charlotte is more likely to have success running the ball run the ball because FIU has had little success in stopping it (ranked 102).

Neither team is lights-out when it comes to passing. FIU is in the upper one-third of pass defenses although a good portion of that is because opponents find it easier to rush. Conversely, even with Gardner in the backfield, FIU might like the idea of passing because Charlotte is ranked in the bottom ten in pass defense and next-to-the-last when it comes to sacking opposing quarterbacks.


Jeremy: During the UTEP win on Saturday, FIU had three rushers go for more than 100 yards. That hadn’t happened since 2010. I think the Golden Panthers can continue to move the ball on the ground at Charlotte. Interim coach Ron Cooper has stopped the bleeding a bit and the fact the team hasn’t lost a C-USA game to this point is encouraging. Charlotte took a step in the right direction last week, but they are still in building mood.

FIU 31, Charlotte 20

Bobby: Although these teams seem equally matched, I will usually go with any team that has a clearly superior rusher, which FIU has in Alex Garder. Although I don't like FIU's turnover history, there are several factors with Charlotte that I find troubling. The 49ers are allowing 46 points per game to FBS opponents, they rank in the bottom quadrant for penalty yardage, and despite playing one of the weakest schedules, they've managed one win over FCS Elon while the other came thanks to a penalty that saved them from a Hail-Mary score. Had the last-second catch not been overturned Charlotte would have lost to 122nd-ranked Florida Atlantic.

Florida International 35, Charlotte 32

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Florida Atlantic Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Atlantic (1-5, 0-2) @ Marshall (1-4, 0-1)

Who would have guessed that Marshall would be 1-4 right now?

The problem for the Thundering Herd (imagine being a cheerleader and having to spell the one out!) is a defense that has been unable to stop either the pass or long touchdowns. Opponents are putting up almost 300 yards per game through the air and nearly 16 yards per reception.

Last week in a stunning 38-21 loss to North Texas, the Herd gave up an 83-yard touchdown pass and on the very next North Texas possession, a 72-yard run.

Since neither FAU or Marshall is particularly good at running the football, we'll key for a moment on their quarterbacks, each with some notoriety albeit for different reasons.

Marshall's Chase Litton drew attention last year as a freshman as he passed for over a half-mile of yardage and had 23 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. At 6’6”, Litton has great arm strength and is considered a pro prospect. This season, his quarterback rating is up, but so are his interceptions.

Meanwhile, Florida Atlantic has that famous Driskel name at quarterback, although not Jeff, the older brother who originally made the surname famous.

Younger brother Jason has over 1,100 yards passing with a 56.9 completion rate. However, he has been sacked 15 times already this season and like last year, he is throwing more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4).

Expect to see a hum-drum running game but keep your eyes in the skies because that's where you will probably see the most yardage (and interceptions.) Besides, Marshall is coached by Doc Holliday so would we expect anything other than a gunslinger's duel?


Jeremy: It’s been awhile since there’s been a W next to Marshall’s name, 33 days to be exact. Like my colleague, I’m a bit mystified why the Herd have struggled so much. But this feels like a game they get back to playing well. Being at home will help, and I think we’ll see Litton rebound a bit after a rough day at the office in Denton last week. He threw for 413 yards against Akron, and he may be up over 400 against this week.

Marshall 33, FAU 21

Bobby: It's high time Marshall finally puts it all together and salvages a drain-swirling season. There is no excuse for a perennial conference contender to continue losing to teams like North Texas (1-11 last year), and surrendering 65 points to Akron, a team currently ranked 71st on the AC Index (, and giving up nearly 100 ypg in penalties. I say Holiday reins in the mavericks and the Thundering Herd finally looks like a contender.

Marshall 35, Florida Atlantic 14

UTSA (2-3, 1-1) @ Rice (0-5, 0-3)

UTSA shocked Southern Mississippi last Saturday with a 55-32 win. Clearly, the game was an upset, but it wasn't completely unforeseen. We mentioned in our gave preview last Friday that Southern Miss has a history of starting games slowly and against UTSA, a team that started the season by scoring with just nine seconds gone from the opening kickoff (and UTSA kicked off!), the Roadrunners were in the end zone.

Last week, UTSA had fewer first downs, less total offense, and only about one-half of USM's passing yardage, yet the Roadrunners won easily.

How did they do that?

Two things: 1) big plays, and 2) no turnovers.

Just 82 seconds into the game, quarterback Dalton Sturm hit Kerry Thomas Jr. with a 71-yard touchdown pass. On the first play of UTSA's next possession, Sturm hit Josh Stewart with a 77-yard pass and on the next possession, the Roadrunners pounded the ball into the end zone for a 21-0 lead in less than five minutes.

The point is UTSA can score fast and may be a whole lot better than analysts have thought.

Rice has some ability to run the ball, not much yardage passing, and they rank dead last in FBS total defense.

In fairness, it's important to note that Rice has played a top-40 most-difficult schedule.


Jeremy: Having a bye week will help get Rice refocused, but the problem is the defense can’t consistently stop anyone. Aside from one quarter against UNT, the defense hasn’t shown the ability to get off the field. Whether the Roadrunners start fast or slow, I think they will get enough big plays to earn the road win.

UTSA 35, Rice 27

Bobby: Rice is a better team than we've seen this year and the Owls will win some games. But, UTSA is in the upper-half of the nation's defensive units while Rice is at the very bottom. I have to go with UTSA to win its second in a row and stay in CUSA contention.

UTSA 38, Rice 14

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Western Kentucky (3-3, 1-1) @ Middle Tennessee (4-1, 2-0)

Off to a 4-1 start, the game Saturday against Western Kentucky will be the biggest test MTSU has faced since Vanderbilt. Western Kentucky comes to down with a dynamic passing attack ranked 15th.

Each team has top-20 quarterback. Western Kentucky has junior Mike White who has over 1,700 yards and a 14-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio while MTSU relies on sophomore Brent Stockstill who has 1,657 yards and a 14-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Middle Tennessee has a decent run game that features one of the nation's top running backs in I'Tavius Mathers who averages more than 100 yards per game and more than five yards per catch.

Western Kentucky counters with Anthony Wales who has just one game over 100 yards but is hard to stop in the red zone.

Middle Tennessee has been able to both pass and run the ball effectively while WKU can defend the run but hasn't been able to move the ball on the ground and has experienced too many turnovers.


Jeremy: WKU had a 13-game winning streak over conference opponents snapped last week at Louisiana Tech. Could they really drop two straight? It’s certainly possible, but I’m betting against it.

As mentioned, Western Kentucky has a dynamic passing game. Mike White needs just 186 passing yards to post the 10th-best single-season in program history, and we’re only in mid-October. WKU also is good against the run, ranking No. 15 in the country.

Western Kentucky 38, Middle Tennessee State 34

Bobby: AC Index ( sees this as a narrow Middle Tennessee win and after seeing the Blue Raiders' advantages in turnovers and penalties, it seems MTSU is the more disciplined team. The Blue Raiders are also playing at home which you have to take into account.

Middle Tennessee 35, Western Kentucky 28

Louisiana Tech (3-3, 2-1) @ Massachusetts 1-5 (independent)

UMass has a middle-of-the-road pass defense and it will need every bit of it to survive against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, which has the nation’s 5th-ranked passing attack.

Bulldog quarterback Ryan Higgins is completing over 65 percent of his passes and averages more than 300 yards per game through the air. And he doesn't make many mistakes. In six games, Higgins has thrown 17 touchdowns while being intercepted only twice.

Last week against Western Kentucky, Higgins was 33-45 for 454 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran the ball seven times for 31 yards.

Massachusetts will counter with speedy running back Marquis Young who has over 500 yards, including 163 yards last week against Old Dominion and an 83-yard breakaway against Mississippi State.

It's not likely Young will produce those kinds of numbers against Louisiana Tech due to a weak offensive line as well as the Bulldogs’ solid rush defense.

If UMass is to find success, it might be through the air as La Tech is near the bottom of the FBS in defending the pass. UMass has Andrew Young at quarterback and the sophomore has done a nice job completing over 60% of his passes. Young averages only 20 passes per game and he's been sacked more than most quarterbacks. Additionally, 6% percent of his passes have been intercepted .


Jeremy: Louisiana Tech is coming off an emotional win and now must travel halfway across the country to play a 1-5 team. That’s the recipe for a letdown. That being said, La Tech is clearly the better team and even if they aren’t as motivated or sharp, they will get the job done. UMass sticks around for two or three quarters, but can’t generate enough offense to get the upset.

La Tech 28, U-Mass 13

Bobby: Louisiana Tech has performed well this season and almost beat Arkansas in the season opener. U-Mass needs more time to build an FBS-competitive roster, especially in the trenches. To me, there seems little doubt which team will win.

Louisiana Tech 44, Massachusetts 17