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Conference USA: Week Five Preview

The calendar moves to October on Saturday and Conference USA will signify the start of the new month with five league games.

Conference USA

FAU at FIU

The Shula Bowl will be renewed in South Florida when Florida Atlantic makes the short trip to Miami to face FIU in the conference opener for both teams. Ron Cooper takes over as coach of the Panthers as they look to get their offense going against an Owls squad that has won two of the three meetings when the teams have been members of C-USA and leads the overall series, 10-3.

Junior LB Treyvon Williams has been a productive force on the FIU defense, ranking fourth in C-USA in total tackles (42), tying for second in sacks (three) and posting four tackles for loss.  Florida Atlantic sophomore DB Jalen Young has been a consistent performer for Charlie Partridge’s club, notching at least eight tackles in each of his four games (35 total), while adding a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. 

Old Dominion at Charlotte

Old Dominion will look to make it two straight conference victories when it visits Charlotte. This will be just the second meeting between these two very young programs and talented running backs will be on display. 

The Monarchs are second in Conference USA in rushing at 180.8 yards per game and they have developed a strong one-two punch in sophomore Jeremy Cox and junior Ray Lawry. Cox averages 74 yards per game with four touchdowns, while Lawry averages 71.2 with two scores. 49ers senior RB Kalif Phillips is coming off his first 100-yard rushing game of the season at Temple (his 12th career 100-yard performance), finishing the contest with 114 yards on 16 carries.

El Paso at Louisiana Tech

UTEP and Louisiana Tech played a nail-biter in El Paso last year and the Miners will be looking to avenge that two-point loss when they meet the Bulldogs in Ruston Saturday night. LA Tech has won seven of the last eight meetings in the series, dating back to 1991. UTEP senior Nick Usher was moved to linebacker prior to the 2016 season and has produced solid numbers for the Miners. Usher, after posting eight tackles and half a sack against Southern Miss last week, leads the team with 2.5 sacks and ranks second on the team with 26 tackles. 

Louisiana Tech QB Ryan Higgins completed 36-of-59 passes for a career-high 504 yards and three touchdowns last Saturday at Middle Tennessee to become only the third quarterback in program history to pass for over 500 yards and the first since current quarterbacks coach Tim Rattay did it on Oct. 30, 1999. He is one of only five FBS passers (including WKU’s Mike White) to throw for at least 500 yards this season.

Middle Tennessee at North Texas

Two teams that posted come-from-behind wins last week meet when Middle Tennessee visits North Texas in Denton. The Blue Raiders rallied to top LA Tech, while the Mean Green posted a double-overtime win at Rice. Senior RB I’Tavius Mathers, who has scored seven of the team’s last eight TDs, ranks seventh nationally in scoring at 13.5 points per game.

The Ole Miss transfer has nine TDs on the season after scoring seven times in three years as a Rebel. In the last two games, Mathers has combined for 320 rushing yards, 177 receiving yards and eight touchdowns (six rushing, two receiving). He is also averaging 8.7 yards a touch during that span. North Texas junior RB Jeffrey Wilson is right behind Mathers in rushing touchdowns with six, following his career-high three TD outing in last week’s victory. He also ran for a career-best 157 yards in the contest and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry this season.

Rice at Southern Miss

West Division foes Rice and Southern Miss meet up in Hattiesburg. The Owls offense had their best outing of the season last Saturday, but the Rice defense must now deal with the potent one-two Golden Eagle punch of QB Nick Mullens and RB Ito Smith. Mullens is coming off his second three-touchdown passing game of the season, while Smith is one of only two FBS running backs to top the 100-yard in all four games this season. 

Smith is averaging 135.0 yards per game with four rushing scores.  Rice senior QB Tyler Stehling had a career-best passing day last Saturday and senior WR Zach Wright was big reason why, as he established new career-highs with 10 receptions for 120 yards. It was his second career 100-yard game and he doubled his reception total from the first three games of the season.

Marshall at Pittsburgh 

In non-conference play, Marshall visits ACC foe Pittsburgh and WKU welcomes Houston Baptist. Thundering Herd junior TE Ryan Yurachek had a 16-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter last week for his second score of the season. The nation’s leading scorer among all tight ends in 2015, Yurachek has a receiving touchdown in eight of his last nine games. 

After running for just 120 yards combined in the season’s first two games, WKU has been productive on the ground the last two outings, nearly tripling that with 341 rushing yards. After freshman RB Quinton Baker topped the 100-yard mark at Miami (Ohio), it was senior RB Anthony Wales turn vs. Vanderbilt, gaining 157 yards with two touchdowns (his sixth career multiple-score game).

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