Group of 5 Spotlight: The Two Plays that Turned Conference USA to Early Chaos

Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech stunned the front-runners in C-USA on last-minute plays

Gatlin Casey thought Middle Tennessee might be the right fit for his last season of eligibility.

 

A graduate transfer from Lehigh and two-time All-Patriot League performer, Casey said the departure of current San Francisco 49ers rookie Richie James opening a spot in the Blue Raiders' receiving corps; the return of veteran quarterback Brent Stockstill; and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin all made MTSU "the perfect situation."

 

Despite a hamstring injury earlier this season, it didn't take long for Casey to make his mark.

 

"Once I got healthy, coach Franklin still had confidence in me," Casey said.

 

And how. Casey's two-point conversion reception to sink defending Conference USA champion FAU in Week 5 was one of the most spectacular plays of the 2018 campaign, and one that helps usher some early chaos into the C-USA race.

 

The Owls — winners of 11 games a season ago — appeared on their way to a ninth consecutive victory against C-USA competition. A 45-yard Chris Robinson touchdown run in the late second quarter gave FAU a 21-3 lead against the homestanding Blue Raiders. It was the last touchdown MTSU conceded.

 

The Blue Raiders chipped away at the 18-point deficit, culminating in a fourth-down touchdown run from Tavares Thomas with 38 seconds remaining. Instead of kicking the extra point for overtime, the call came from the sideline to play for the win.

 

"The coaches made the decision before the drive: If we were going to score, we were going to go for two," said Stockstill. "With the type of team we have, when we looked over and saw my dad [head coach Rick Stockstill] holding up two, there was never any doubt."

 

"I knew my role in that play," Casey said of the call coming in. "I was checking with coach Franklin, checking [the FAU defense's] look; what are they doing?" Casey said. "We got a Cover-7 look.

 

"My job was to get the back line," Casey added. I saw Brent, he didn't really see anyone open, so he turned to the other side of the field. I just started working with him. At the last second, he saw me... when the ball went up in the air, I just knew I had to get it."

 

 

With the heavy favorite in the division unseated — FAU earned 22-of-26 first-place votes from C-USA media in the preseason poll — MTSU gains an inside track. But it's still very early, with a pair of big road games ahead for the Blue Raiders. They travel to Marshall this week, and FIU on Oct. 13.

 

MTSU's win capped a turbulent Saturday in the conference, which also saw defending West division champion and preseason favorite North Texas lose on a last-minute play. Louisiana Tech's Amik Robertson blocked Mean Green kicker Cole Hedlund with 33 seconds to go.

 

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THE BLOCK. THE WIN.

A post shared by LA Tech Football (@latechfb) on

 

A whole lot of football remains, but Louisiana Tech and MTSU positioned themselves moving forward about as well as any team can at this early juncture in conference play.

 

"We knew that kind of set the tone for the whole season, with that game," Stockstill said. "That gives us a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum moving forward."

 

And as for Casey and his "perfect fit" at MTSU, he delivered on "the kind of plays he came here to make," as Stockstill described it.

 

A "Freakish" Amount of Points 

Appalachian State has had some outstanding offenses over the years; ask a Michigan fan about Armanti Edwards sometime. So, with the 2018 Mountaineers piling up points at a historic pace, it's no small feat.

 

 

Scott Satterfield's bunch put up 52 points last week in a 45-point romp over Sun Belt Conference counterpart South Alabama, one week removed from hanging 72 on FCS opponent Gardner-Webb. The Mountaineers also touched up Charlotte for 45 points in Week 2. Their only outing scoring fewer than 40 points?

 

Thirty-eight points at Penn State in the season opener, which equal 11 more than Ohio State scored against the Nittany Lions this past week.

 

Key to Appalachian State's No. 3 overall scoring offense is a run game averaging a hair below 270 rushing yards per game. The Mountaineers produced 432 on the ground against Gardner-Webb, and 348 against South Alabama, with veteran running back Jalin Moore setting the pace.

 

 

Moore's workload has been tempered somewhat as a result of Appalachian State's lopsided margins of victory, but he's scored five rushing touchdowns on just 56 carries. His presence in the backfield has also eased the learning curve for sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas, who replaced four-year starter Taylor Lamb this season.

 

"This year, he grew more in a leadership role than he ever has here," Satterfield said of Moore. "He's been great in the locker room, the weight room, he's got a strong work ethic, and the young guys just look at him and see where he's at."

 

Where Moore's at near the midpoint of 2018 is among the best running backs in college football. NFL.com spotlighted him this offseason as one of its 18 top "freakish athletes," and DraftScout.com ranks him eighth among 2019 draft prospects at the position.

 

Moore and the high-powered Mountaineers are off this week, but begin the season's slate of midweek football on Oct. 9 against Arkansas State.

 

Mystique in the Mountain West

Never one to shy from speaking his mind, San Diego State coach Rocky Long said following the Aztecs' last trip to Boise State in 2014, "they don't have a mystique," linked to the celebrated blue-turf field.

 

Time makes amends, as Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin expressed in his weekly press conference. Harsin said he's "more mature [than] four years ago."

 

It's difficult to say a rivalry was born on that day in 2014. The two did not play in the next two seasons — seasons in which San Diego State won a pair of Mountain West Conference championships. They renewed hostilities last October, however, with Boise State scoring a 31-14 win on its way to a conference title.

 

The programs responsible for the past four Mountain West championships certainly have high stakes on the line in this week's meeting. Both sit at 3-1, with Boise State coming off a lopsided Week 5 win at Wyoming. San Diego State's playing its first MWC game of the season after a bye week. The Aztecs built some momentum to cap the non-conference slate, beating Arizona State and Eastern Michigan in overtime in Weeks 3 and 4.

 

San Diego State heads to Boise State for this early pace-setter in the conference without running back Juwan Washington, out for six weeks with a clavicle injury. The Aztecs were also without quarterback Christian Chapman the previous two games, starting Ryan Agnew instead. Chapman could return to face Boise State's outstanding defense.

 

"They've got other players who can come in and fill those roles," Harsin said in a nod indicative of the respect-over-rivalry tone ahead of this year's installment. "Because they're coached well."

 

Unbeaten in the American 

Just 11 unbeaten teams remain in the FBS this season. Only three hail from Group of 5 conferences — and they all come from the same division in the same conference.

 

Behind six touchdowns from rising Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback McKenzie Milton, UCF blasted Pitt, 45-14, for its 17th consecutive win dating back to last season. The Knights set in the pace in the American Athletic Conference's East division once again, though there could be championship stakes on the line in this November's installment of The War on I-4, just as there was a year ago.

 

USF comes off its bye week at 4-0, a winner of three straight games decided by 11 points or less. The Bulls are on the road for the next two weeks, traveling to UMass in non-conference action this Saturday, and visiting Tulsa on Friday, Oct. 12. Should Charlie Strong's bunch get a redo on last year's incredible rivalry showdown with UCF sporting an undefeated record, the Bulls would have to get past a Nov. 10 trip to Cincinnati.

 

Cincinnati's already eclipsed last season's win total, head coach Luke Fickell's first with the program. The Bearcats blasted UConn a week ago, 49-7, and face Tulane this week sporting the nation's No. 2 overall scoring defense (12.2 points per game). Perhaps the only thing more surprising in the American than Cincinnati thus far in 2018 is how topsy-turvy the West division has been — and that includes the Bearcats' Week 6 opponent, Tulane.

 

The Green Wave routed reigning divisional champion Memphis last Friday, 40-24, and looked good doing it.

 

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @MT_FB)

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