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Thursday, October 13, 2005

By Al Myatt

Plot twists put league race up for grabs


The Conference USA football season is only about 25 percent complete, but at this early juncture the league standings bear little resemblance to the coaches' preseason poll released August 1.

Picked in a tie with East Carolina for fifth and last in the East Division, Central Florida is perhaps the biggest surprise as the only unbeaten team in C-USA play with a 2-0 record. Coach George O'Leary's club was winless in 2004.

The coaches' crystal ball took a major hit last week as two teams from the supposedly weaker West Division knocked off two of the projected powers in the East.


(Through games of
Saturday, Oct. 8)


UCF        2-0   3-2
UAB        1-1   3-2
USM        1-1   2-2
ECU        1-1   2-3
Marshall   1-1   2-3
Memphis    1-2   2-3


Houston    2-1   3-2
Tulsa      2-1   3-3
UTEP       1-1   3-1
Tulane     1-1   2-2
SMU        1-2   2-4
Rice       0-2   0-4


Friday, Oct. 14:

UTEP vs. Tulane
(Ruston, LA)

Saturday, Oct. 15:

Tulsa at Rice
UAB at Marshall
Memphis at Houston


Southern Methodist, which hosts the Pirates on Saturday, defied its last place poll position in the West by rallying at UAB for a 28-27 win. The Mustangs drove for the winning score on a 31-yard pass from Jerad Romo to Bobby Chase as time expired. The Blazers were picked second in the East.

East favorite Southern Miss fell 34-17 at home in Hattiesburg to a Tulsa team slotted fourth in the West. That was after the Golden Eagles had taken a 17-7 lead.

Only one of the league's 12 teams has less than two losses overall and that team, West favorite UTEP, at 3-1, is 1-1 in the league with a 27-20 loss to Memphis on Oct. 1.

C-USA has become a model of that longtime NFL objective — parity.

"It's kind of hard to figure out right now, without a doubt," said ECU coach Skip Holtz. "Eight or nine games into the season and you're gonna find out who the clearcut favorites are.

"I was talking with Coach (Ken) Hatfield before the (Rice) game about this is going to be a great league. I think this league has strengthened itself tremendously with the addition of some teams that have come in. There's great parity in this league. Anybody can beat anybody on a given day."

Holtz said that's a lot like his experience on his dad's staff at South Carolina as far as competition in the Southeastern Conference was concerned.

"Even before that, being in the Atlantic 10, the conference I was in (at Connecticut) in I-AA, I thought was extremely competitive. But I think (C-USA) has all the makings to be dynamite. I think the games are fun. They're exciting. There's a lot of great coaches in this league who are going to have well-coached teams.

"You realize you're going to have to strap up that chin strap every week and play well to win because everybody can beat everybody."

The Pirates had to wipe away a 28-24 Owls lead in the fourth quarter for a 41-28 win provided primarily by the passing of James Pinkney.

Things can change as quickly as an interception or lost fumble.

Southern Miss was coming off a 33-7 win at ECU before Tulsa shocked the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss benefited from five Pirate turnovers, but last week the Golden Eagles were beset by four interceptions.

"After we beat ECU, we kind of got our heads big," said Southern Miss quarterback Dustin Almond. "Tulsa woke us up."

Always beware of teams with something to prove. The Golden Hurricane was seeking atonement from a 30-23 loss to Houston in which a potential game-tying drive was undone by a fumble. Tulsa outscored USM 27-7 in the second half to give the Golden Eagles only their sixth C-USA home loss in the last decade.

The Golden Hurricanes' defense, which came to Hattiesburg ranked 109th among 117 Division I-A teams against the run, limited Southern Miss to just 37 yards on 16 attempts. Go figure that one.

The Pirates made adjustments after playing the part of a too-generous host with four lost fumbles against the Golden Eagles.

"It's a testimony to Junior Smith (ECU running backs coach) and the job he's done with ball security," Holtz said after a turnover-free effort against Rice. "We talk about we need to come up on the positive side in the turnover battle.

"Turnovers are key, I don't care what level you're playing at. When you turn it over five times, you can't beat anybody doing that. We made an emphasis on it. We worked on it all week."

Robert Tillman, who ran for the go-ahead score against Rice, said the coaches had skill position personnel holding footballs throughout practice before the Rice game, even when the players were running wind sprints or standing on the sidelines.

Holtz said the emphasis was not negative in terms of "don't fumble." Protecting the football was the point being made.

"It helped a lot," Tillman said. "I'm pretty sure everybody didn't want to go through another week holding the ball everywhere they go or just standing around holding the ball. But if you don't have turnovers, you should win the game."

The Pirates took care of the ball at West Virginia and made that game surprisingly close in a 20-15 loss.

ECU may have lost the ball against the Golden Eagles but they didn't lose their fan base.

For the Pirates to draw 33,000-plus for the Rice game on a day when rain was forecast was a very good sign. Few came to see the Owls, so ECU fans obviously felt good about what Holtz and staff were doing despite three straight losses.

The matchup with Rice was entertaining and competitive. Although much of the Pirate Nation wanted ECU to be included in Big East expansion, C-USA is a good fit as Holtz and company retool the program. Winning, regardless of league affiliation, will solve problems and create opportunities.

And winning in this league this season apparently has a lot to do with being prepared to play every game. As Holtz said, the team needs to be ready to "strap it up" as it heads for Dallas. The Pirates are 1-1 in the league and there are a lot of possibilities in front of them that would be enhanced if that mark goes to 2-1 in Big D.

"If we go out there and execute and play hard and don't make mental mistakes, we'll be fine," Tillman said.

The Pirates need to keep holding onto the football and fans should keep hold of their seats. It looks like Conference USA version 2005 is going to be a wild ride.

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02/23/2007 12:33:39 AM

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