College Sports in the Carolinas
from the 'ville
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.
STANDINGS & SCHEDULE
Saturday, Oct. 8)
TEAM C-USA ALL
UAB 1-1 3-2
USM 1-1 2-2
ECU 1-1 2-3
Marshall 1-1 2-3
TEAM C-USA ALL
SMU 1-2 2-4
Rice 0-2 0-4
UTEP vs. Tulane
ECU at SMU
Tulsa at Rice
UAB at Marshall
Memphis at Houston
UCF at USM
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
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
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
"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
"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
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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