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CUSA Week 2 primer: First league game carries weight

The SportsXchange

The first Conference USA game of the season presents an intriguing matchup -- and an opportunity for one team, East Carolina, to showcase its case to be one of the league's elite teams.

ECU hosts Florida Atlantic Thursday night. FAU struggled on offense in an opening-week loss at Miami (Fla.).

It could wind up being a showcase for a pair of ECU offensive powerhouses: quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy. Against Old Dominion in Week 1, both put up big numbers.

This'll be a tougher defense, of course, but another set of numbers like this against FAU could serve notice that the Pirates' offense is ready to roll in 2013.

"They'll be a team that has design runs for the quarterback, similar to what we faced with ODU," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil said. "We have to make sure we do a good job containing them. They have great speed and athleticism at the wide out and skill positions. This morning I finished watching the Miami game and I thought FAU matched up with their athleticism."

The first game of the league season should tell quite a bit about who might win the conference. Here's a team-by-team look at this week's Conference USA action:

East Carolina

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Vs. Florida Atlantic, Thursday, 7:35 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- This will be a good stage for ECU's receivers, perhaps most notably junior Justin Hardy. He is second among all active FBS players in receptions per game, averaging 7 per game. Hardy is coming off a career effort, grabbing 16 catches in the first game of the year against Old Dominion.

-- ECU's defense will look to take advantage of a FAU offense that only scored six points in the team's opener. FS Damon Magazu is the team's most potent interception threat, but OLB Derrell Johnson, a senior, has 37 consecutive starts. They'll conspire to make FAU's developing quarterback situation even more complicated.

-- DB Terrell Richardson (right knee) is out for Thursday's game. DE Jeton Beavers (right leg) is questionable.

Florida International

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. UCF, Friday, 8 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- First-year FIU coach Ron Turner has shown that he's willing to see what's best at quarterback position, playing both Jake Medlock and E.J. Hilliard at quarterback in a lopsided loss at Maryland to open the season. Against a quality opponent like UCF, their learning curve won't be any easier. It'll be interesting to see who gets the most snaps against UCF.

-- FIU will be without junior CB Richard Leonard, one of its most potent threats as a kick returner, due to academic issues, the Miami Herald reported. Leonard is not expected to be eligible all year.

-- The Panthers probably won't win this game on offense, given the uncertainty at quarterback. So look for their two NFL prospects in the middle, DTs Greg Hickman and Isame Faciane, to play their best if FIU is to succeed.

Florida Atlantic

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at East Carolina, Thursday, 7:35 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- QB Greg Hankerson, who suffered a rib injury, is healthy and should be able to play in the team's conference opener. Still, though, FAU appears to be relying heavily on Jaquez JOhnson, who racked up significant stats both running and passing in the season opener.

-- FAU coach Carl Pelini is promising a new look against ECU defensively to accommodate the Pirates' wide-open offense. "We had a lot of big sets against Miami, played a lot of base defense," he said. "This week we will see a lot more three wides, four wides, five wides sometimes empty, spread the field a lot more. Very, very different offense than Miami." That should bode well for the playing time of DBs Cre'von LaBlanc and Christian Milstead. If they're both on the field together, LaBlanc would play nickel and Milstead would play safety.

-- RB Jonathan Wallace led the team in rushing last year but had a subpar game against Miami, rushing for just 34 yards. Given the relative youth at quarterback, the Owls would need to rely on his veteran qualities going on the road at ECU.

Louisiana Tech

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. Lamar, Saturday, 6 p.m. ET

-- DT Vontarrius Dora drew coach Skip Holtz's positive attention in last week's loss to N.C. State, hinting at more playing time. "I thought Dora had an excellent second half, when put at the point of attack," he said. "I thought our defensive line was very solid in the game."

-- Lamar scored 75 in its opener (against Oklahoma Panhandle State), but it's the defense that caught Skip Holtz's eye. New Tech QB Scotty Young will have to face a 3-4 look, and that's something Holtz is going to focus on this week. "We are going to need a great look from our scout teams so we can get acclimated to this," he said.

-- WR Sterling Griffin is getting back into shape after missing 2012 with a knee injury. He transferred to Tech from South Florida in the offseason and is working his way into the rotation and drawing Holtz's favorable attention.

Marshall

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Vs. Gardner-Webb, Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- DL James Rouse is a feel-good story, and he's playing well, too. Rouse missed part of 2011 and all of 2012 with injuries. He's back now, and coach Doc Holliday named him a captain this week as a reward for his perseverance. "He played Saturday and played extremely well," Holliday said. "It was great to see because he's a great player and a great kid."

-- C Clint Van Horn, a freshman, is an embodiment of the depth on Marshall's offensive line. He played meaningful snaps in the Miami (Ohio) game. "We're getting a lot more than just the starting five," Holliday said.

-- The only thing that might stop QB Rakeem Cato from putting up record-breaking numbers against Gardner-Webb might be that the win will be so lopsided he won't play much. Cato threw for 253 yards and ran for 59 in the win over Miami (Ohio).

Middle Tennessee

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Vs. North Carolina, 12:29 p.m. ET

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- QB Logan Kilgore will play a week after suffering a shoulder injury, but MTSU coach Rick Stockstill admits he won't be at his best. "I doubt he'll be 100 percent," Stockstill said. "He practiced yesterday, but we limited his throws." A less-than-100 percent Kilgore beats the alternative, as he's a four-year starter who has been at the helm of some other MTSU major upsets. Stockstill said nothing about the offense will change due to his injury.

-- UNC QB Bryn Renner presents quite the challenge and opportunity to Middle's defense. Senior LB Stephen Roberts thinks the tempo is faster than expected. "Our biggest thing is for our defense to get more conditioned to stay with the tempo and defeat the tempo, and get the three and outs we need," Roberts said. Look for him to lead.

-- A solid running game is key to taking a big road upset. Look for RB Jordan Parker, who gained 156 yards in an opening blowout of Western Carolina, to take over if MTSU is to get the win -- especially if Kilgore is obviously hurting.

North Texas

THIS WEEK'S GAME: At Ohio, 6 p.m.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- QB Derek Thompson established in a UNT rout of Idaho in the season-opener that he's the go-to quarterback this year. It changes a bit on the road against an Ohio team reeling from a thumping at the hands of top-10 Louisville last week.

-- WR Brelan Chancellor is not only Thompson's top target, he's a weapon in the return game, too. Against Idaho, he returned three punts for 111 yards. If he can change field position like that on the road, or get one to the house, that can put a dagger into a wobbling Bobcats team.

-- LB Zach Orr is the team's leader on defense, recording 10 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against Idaho.

Rice

Rice lost at Texas A&M last week and has an open date.

Southern Miss

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at Nebraska, Saturday, 5 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- USM coach Todd Monken was full of praise for QB Allan Bridgford, who started for the first time in last week's loss to Texas State. "Did he make his mistakes? Of course he did. But that's to be understood," Monken said. "But for him to come out and really throw the ball accurately, to really, honestly run our offense the way he has is really almost unprecedented when you think about it." Playing at Nebraska in front of 90,000 people, though, may be another notch up.

-- Monken is well aware that his running back play, plus his fullback play, has to improve for the entire "We've got to put teams in more of a run-pass conflict. We're going to get (quarterback Allan Bridgford) killed if we don't," Monken said. Southern Miss netted 23 rushing yards against Texas State -- compare that to 375 by Nebraska in its opener. Look for Monken to find ways to get running backs Tyre Bracken, Kendrick Hardy and Jalen Richard better openings.

-- P Matthew Moseley might get a lot of action Saturday, and that's not necessarily a scary thing for the Golden Eagles. He had a long of 54 and an average of 38.3 against Texas State.

Tulane

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. South Alabama, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- LB Edward Williams (ankle) continues to improve and is getting closer to play this week for Tulane.

-- No pressure, PK Cairo Santos, last year's Lou Groza Award winner, but you've got a streak going. Santos has made 23 consecutive field goals dating to the final attempt of his 2011 season.

-- QB Nick Montana, the son of Joe Montana, drew praise from Tulane coach Curtis Johnson despite a so-so debut against Jackson State. The key for Montana, Johnson said, is better blocking and route-running by Tulane's receivers.

Tulsa

THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. Colorado State, 6 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- Is there more coming for QB Dane Evans? In last week's blowout loss at Bowling Green, Evans threw for the Golden Hurricanes' only touchdown in garbage time.

-- Senior LB Shawn Jackson needs two sacks to tie the school record of 20. But Jackson's overall efforts will be important against CSU after Tulsa gave up 34 points last week.

-- Conference USA preseason punt returner of the year Trey Watts could use a breakout game. He had just 15 yards on three punts, with all but one of those yards coming on one punt, in the Bowling Green game. Tulsa is looking for a spark, and the punt return would be a great place for it.

UAB

THIS WEEK'S GAME: at LSU, 6 p.m. CT

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

-- The season didn't start the way UAB coach Garrick McGee wanted, but he was OK with the play of his quarterbacks: Austin Brown and Jonathan Perry. Look for him to use both at LSU again.

-- Freshman WR Jamari Staples was a pleasant surprise for McGee, so look for him to find more opportunities for his quarterback to get the ball to him at LSU. "I did not know that he was as mature as he is," McGee said. "That's what stands out to the rest of this team. He's more mature than the average freshman, and that gives him the opportunity to make plays."

-- PK Ty Long remains a weapon for the Blazers. He is 30-for-36 in his UAB career and owns the two longest field goals in the school's football history.

UTEP

THIS WEEK's GAME: vs. New Mexico, 8 p.m. ET

-- New Mexico runs the triple option, which has drawn coach Sean Kugler's attention immediately. He'll need discipline up front, especially from DL Adam Ayala, DL Marcus Bagley and DL Germard Reed.

-- Heading into the first week of the season, Kugler still isn't sure who will punt for him. It'll either be Brandon Moss or Jay Mattox. "That [battle] will continue the early part of the week," Kugler said. "I'm leaning towards Moss from the standpoint of being consistent with get off and hang time. That's probably how we'll line up on Saturday."

-- Junior RB Nathan Jeffrey (toe sprain) has missed some practice time this fall. But Kugler said this week he expects him to play against New Mexico.

UTSA

THIS WEEK's GAME: at New Mexico, 12 p.m. ET

-- WR Kam Jones has emerged as a dual-threat on offense. Against New Mexico last week, he caught five passes for 65 yards and ran four times for 39 yards.

-- The best way to keep Oklahoma State's offense at bay is to have good offense of your own. And the best way to do that and keep the clock running is to have a good offensive line. Enter OG Scott Inskeep, a preason all-Conference USA team member. He'll be key to that effort against the Cowboys.

-- So will QB Eric Soza, who led UTSA to a comeback win against New Mexico last week. Soza has been a career starter at UTSA and is the perfect kind of player to lead the team to an upset.

NOTES, QUOTES

-- Friday night's game marks the third of a four-game series between FIU and in-state opponent UCF. The two teams have split the previous two meetings. FIU may be a notch below UCF in program rankings, but the two teams compete for similar recruits, and the game, therefore, has significant importance.

-- FAU coach Carl Pelini isn't exactly excited to be playing his first Conference USA game -- at least it seems that way judging by what he told reporters this week. "I don't feel a different vibe," he said. "I'm sure they will feel it on Thursday night, but right now it is about preparing every day and move on to the next opponent."

-- If Tulane can beat South Alabama Saturday, it'll be the Green Wave's first 2-0 start since 2002. "As Sean Payton would tell me all the time, the most desperate team usually wins. Well this team is going to be desperate. They're 0-1. What we've got to do is we have to match their intensity, come out and play our game and I think we'll be fine," Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said.

-- UAB's rough road stretch to open the season continues with a trip this week to LSU. The Blazers lost an opener at Troy and then is off on Sept. 14. The Blazers' opener at Legion Field in Birmingham isn't until Sept. 21.

-- Saturday marks the debut of Sean Kugler as the UTEP coach, but you wouldn't believe it by hearing him talk. " I don't view one game bigger than the other," he said. "I won't view this game any bigger than any game I've ever coached in. It's a process. It's one game. Regardless of the outcome of this game, there's going to be another game the next week and we'll prepare the same way for that game"

-- No. 13 Oklahoma State is the first ranked team to play UTSA at the Alamodome.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "What strikes me the most when reflecting on it, there's something bigger than football. Football is such a large part of our lives here, but this young man's life changed. And then, how courageous he is in what he does daily. You can't fathom what he and his family goes through all the time. Sometimes it's heartbreaking, but sometimes I rejoice because he's so positive." -- Tulane coach Curtis Johnson on former Green Wave player Devon Walker, who was paralyzed in a game last year.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH THIS WEEK IN CONFERENCE USA:

1. Former UTEP offensive lineman Sean Kugler returned to his alma mater in the offseason from his job as a position coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After having the opening week off, he'll make his debut against New Mexico. It'll be interesting to see if he can create magic at his alma mater.

2. Oklahoma State heads to the Alamodome to play UTSA. There will surely be plenty of OSU fans there, but the Cowboys weren't all that impressive on offense in their opener against Mississippi State. If those hiccups continue, UTSA has the ability and the right coach to pull what would be a program-defining upset at this stage of its development.

3. Southern Miss has the attitude of playing any team, anywhere, anytime. But right now, it needs wins. The Golden Eagles have lost 13 in a row, including an 0-12 year last year, and head to Nebraska this week. There's a good chance that the Cornhuskers could name their score, and USM will limp on to next week's game -- at Arkansas.

4. How good is Middle Tennessee State without QB Lucas Kilgore? Oh, they should have him this week at North Carolina, but he won't be at 100 percent with a shoulder injury. Kilgore is a big reason why the Blue Raiders have been giant killers recently, but can they slay giants without a productive Kilgore?

5. Tulsa gets a home game and a chance for redemption with Colorado State Saturday. The Golden Hurricanes were the surprise of week one in Conference USA, and not in a good way. They were blown out at Bowling Green. Can Tulsa regain its offensive firepower and get back to winning ways at home?
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