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Southern Miss Golden Eagles
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Wide receiver Willie McNeal caught a two-point conversion from quarterback Brandon Doughty to give Western Kentucky a stunning 67-66 win in overtime Friday at No. 19 Marshall.

The Thundering Herd (11-1, 7-1 Conference USA) came in as 23-point underdogs and favorites to capture a spot in a New Year's Day bowl game. But all that came tumbling down in a wild, offensive shootout.

"It's obvious we didn't get it done out there tonight," MU coach Doc Holliday said. "And I thought Western Kentucky came in and played extremely well. I have to give them credit and we didn't do a very good job of stopping them. At the end of the day we turned it over too many times and they made one play there at the end to beat us. Give them credit there for getting it done."

Doughty threw a whopping eight TD passes in the win as WKU (7-5, 4-4 C-USA) secured a bowl berth. The Hilltoppers have now won at least seven games each of the past four seasons.

"The first quarter was on pace for ridiculous numbers and the second quarter slowed down a tad bit," WKU coach Jeff Brohm said. "Obviously the second half (Marshall) played better and we regrouped. It was a back-and-forth game. They are a good team and know how to win. For us to find a way to win in the end on a two-point play I knew we had to go for it or the game would keep going on. So we went for it and we are lucky we made it. We try to be aggressive and we will go down swinging."

Marshall still gets to play for the league title when they host Louisiana Tech (8-4, 7-1 C-USA) next week. The Bulldogs bullied visiting Rice in the West Division title game by a 76-32 score.

Tech has won six of seven going in to championship week.

"I am really proud of the way this team answered the challenge," LTU coach Skip Holtz said. "I cannot say enough positive things about these players, the heart that they have and the way they compete. I am blessed to have the opportunity to coach such a great group of men."

In other action, Texas El Paso (7-5, 5-3 C-USA) outlasted Middle Tennessee (6-6, 5-3 C-USA) by a 24-21 count and Alabama-Birmingham reached bowl eligibility at 6-6 by hammering Southern Mississippi 45-24. The Golden Eagles finished the season 3-9 and 1-7.

Old Dominion (6-6, 4-4) finished its first year at the FBS level strong with a 31-28 win at Florida Atlantic. Texas San Antonio beat North Texas 34-27 in the season finale for both teams.



ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM (6-6, 4-4)

Game: UAB 45, Southern Mississippi 24. Running back Jordan Howard rushed for 262 yards and three touchdowns as UAB blasted its way past Southern Mississippi. The Blazers led 35-10 in the third quarter after J.J. Nelson's 99-yard kickoff return. Quarterback Cody Clements also threw for 176 yards and three scores. Quarterback Nick Mullens finished with 263 yards passing and a score for a USM team that was 5 of 15 on third down.

Takeaway: After a tumultuous couple of weeks that included a heart-breaking loss at home to a ranked Marshall team, and rumors that the fate of the entire program was in doubt, the Blazers went on the road and dismantled a USM team to become bowl-eligible. UAB is in the tough position of being a six-win team in a league with six other bowl-eligible teams five of which have seven wins or more. Even if the Blazers aren't selected for a bowl game, coach Bill Clark's first season was a major success.

Next: TBD



FLORIDA ATLANTIC (3-9, 2-6)

Game: Old Dominion 31, Florida Atlantic 28. Satchel Ziffer's 27-yard field goal as time expired gave visiting Old Dominion the win in Boca Raton, Fla. Atlantic had tied the game at 28-all on Jaquez Johnson's 11-yard run with 5:14 to play. Neither team led by more than seven points. Johnson finished with 133 yards passing and 70 yards on the ground. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke threw for 282 yards and three scores for ODU and running back Ray Lawary ran for 213 yards on 25 carries, scoring once.

Takeaway: Atlantic ended the year with five straight losses and limps into the offseason looking for answers. The Owls were 3-5 after a win against Western Kentucky on Oct. 18, but didn't win again and allowed at least 31 points in all five of those defeats. First-year coach Charlie Partridge will need a more consistent offensive threat in 2015, and his team went 0-7 on the road in 2014.

Next: Season over.



FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (4-8, 3-5)

Game: OFF

Next: Season over



LOUISIANA TECH (8-4, 7-1)

Game: Louisiana Tech 76, Rice 31. Louisiana Tech blasted Rice to capture the West Division title in Conference USA and advance to the league's title game next week. Running back Kenneth Dixon finished with 137 yards and three scores on the ground, quarterback Cody Sokol threw for 387 yards and four TDs and receivers Trent Taylor, Paul Turner and Carlos Henderson each went over the 100-yard mark receiving. Rice was held to 34 yards rushing and turned the ball over four times.

Takeaway: The Bulldogs bounced back nicely after a bad loss at Old Dominion. Tech's total annihilation of Rice put them in a position to play for a league championship one year after limping to a 4-8 record. Coach Skip Holtz has found a powerful offense with running back Kenneth Dixon and quarterback Cody Sokol and coordinator Manny Diaz has made the LTU defense one of the best in the country at forcing turnovers.

Next: at Marshall, Dec. 6

MARSHALL (11-1, 7-1)

Game: Western Kentucky 67, No. 19 Marshall 66, OT. Wide receiver Willie McNeal caught a two-point conversion pass from quarterback Brandon Doughty and the Hilltoppers stunned No. 19 Marshall in Huntington, W. Va. Doughty threw for eight touchdowns and 491 yards in the shootout. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato threw seven TDs, but was also picked off four times. The Thundering Herd didn't lead until Cato's 25-yard TD pass to Hyleck Foster made it 66-59 in overtime.

Takeaway: Marshall's dream season turned into a nightmare on a Friday afternoon, now the Herd must prove what it's made of. With New Year's Day bowl hopes and the shot at an undefeated season now completely washed out, MU has to regroup as it prepares for a dangerous Louisiana Tech team in the conference title contest. The Herd was exposed defensively in the loss to WKU and made way too many mistakes on the offensive side. Can they correct those issues in time?

Next: vs. Louisiana Tech, Dec. 6



MIDDLE TENNESSEE (6-6, 5-3)

Game: UTEP 24, Middle Tennessee 21. Jameill Showers' 5-yard touchdown run with 6:19 to play proved to be the game-winner for the Miners. Middle had two more possessions, but quarterback Austin Grammer's pass at the UTEP 7 was intercepted by Jameel Erving with 1:26 to go and UTEP's Wesley Miller picked off on last-ditch effort to end the game. Showers finished with 106 yards passing and 59 yards rushing, scoring one touchdown each passing and running. Aaron Jones rushed for 147 yards and a score for UTEP. Grammer was held to 99 yards passing, but rushed for 106 yards and a score. Shane Tucker also finished with 101 yards and two TDs on the ground.

Takeaway: Middle Tennessee ended the regular season by losing three of its final four games and now its bowl hopes are hanging by a thread. There are five other C-USA teams with at least seven wins, and per league rule, those teams will be selected for a bowl game before teams with six wins. The Blue Raiders were 5-3 after a 34-22 win over UAB on Oct 18, but have stumbled down the stretch with losses to BYU, Florida International and now UTEP. Should they be passed over for bowl game, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.

Next: TBD



NORTH TEXAS (4-8, 2-6)

Game: UTSA 34, North Texas 27. Brandon Armstrong's 21-yard run with 4:18 to play gave Texas San Antonio the season-ending win over its in-state rival. North Texas was in position to get the ball back with 1:54 to play, but Zac Whitfield fumbled a punt return and UTSA recovered, then ran the clock out from there. Tucker Carter threw for 277 yards and two scores and David Glasco II finished with 99 yards rushing and a TD. Andrew McNulty threw for 287 yards and a TD while Jeffrey Wilson ran for 105. UTSA had scored 26 points in the three previous games before Saturday's win.

Takeaway: North Texas was supposed to be a contender in Conference USA's West Division in 2014, but that team never materialized. The Mean Green had a pair of 2-2 stretches sandwiched around a four-game losing streak in the middle of the year that ultimately did them in. Junior quarterback Andrew McNulty was too inconsistent, as was UNT's running game. Both areas will need serious improvement in 2015.

Next: Season over.



OLD DOMINION (6-6, 4-4)

Game: Old Dominion 31, Florida Atlantic 28. Satchel Ziffer's 27-yard field goal as time expired gave visiting Old Dominion the win in Boca Raton, Fla. Atlantic had tied the game at 28-all on Jaquez Johnson's 11-yard run with 5:14 to play. Neither team led by more than seven points. Johnson finished with 133 yards passing and 70 yards on the ground. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke threw for 282 yards and three scores for ODU and running back Ray Lawary ran for 213 yards on 25 carries, scoring once.

Takeaway: For many, a 6-6 season would not be considered a success. But for a team making the transition into FBS football and competing in its first year in Conference USA, the Monarchs can be pleased with the year they put together. Coach Bobby Wilder's team ended the season on a three-game winning streak, including a 30-27 win in overtime against West Division champion Louisiana Tech, and three of their losses were to North Carolina State, Vanderbilt and East Division champ Marshall. ODU will have to replace Taylor Heinicke in 2015, but the future looks bright for the Norfolk, Va., program.

Next: TBD

RICE (7-5, 5-3)

Game: Louisiana Tech 76, Rice 31. Louisiana Tech blasted Rice to capture the West Division title in Conference USA and advance to the league's title game next week. Running back Kenneth Dixon finished with 137 yards and three scores on the ground, quarterback Cody Sokol threw for 387 yards and four TDs and receivers Trent Taylor, Paul Turner and Carlos Henderson each went over the 100-yard mark receiving. Rice was held to 34 yards rushing and turned the ball over four times.

Takeaway: Rice will not get a chance to defend its 2013 Conference USA title after laying an egg in an embarrassing defeat at Louisiana Tech. The Owls, instead, must prepare to for its bowl game and try to end the year with a victory there. Coach David Bailiff's team recovered from an 0-3 start to win six in a row, but they lost two of the last three to end the year.

Next: TBD

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI (3-9, 1-7)

Game: UAB 45, Southern Mississippi 24. Running back Jordan Howard rushed for 262 yards and three touchdowns as UAB blasted its way past Southern Mississippi. The Blazers led 35-10 in the third quarter after J.J. Nelson's 99-yard kickoff return. Quarterback Cody Clements also threw for 176 yards and three scores. Quarterback Nick Mullens finished with 263 yards passing and a score for a USM team that was 5 of 15 on third down.

Takeaway: The rebuilding project at USM showed signs of life under coach Jeff Monken in 2014, but the Golden Eagles still have a long way to go. Southern lost its final five games and is now 4-32 in its last 36 and 2-22 in its last 24 conference games. Sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens will be more-experienced in 2015, but USM needs to find a stronger running game and better defensive play to turn losses into wins.

Next: Season over.

TEXAS EL PASO (7-5, 5-3)

Game: Game: UTEP 24, Middle Tennessee 21. Jameill Showers' 5-yard touchdown run with 6:19 to play proved to be the game-winner for the Miners. Middle had two more possessions, but quarterback Austin Grammer's pass at the UTEP 7 was intercepted by Jameel Erving with 1:26 to go and UTEP's Wesley Miller picked off on last-ditch effort to end the game. Showers finished with 106 yards passing and 59 yards rushing, scoring one touchdown each passing and running. Aaron Jones rushed for 147 yards and a score for UTEP. Grammer was held to 99 yards passing, but rushed for 106 yards and a score. Shane Tucker also finished with 101 yards and two TDs on the ground.

Takeaway: The Miners continued their strong play at home by beating Middle Tennessee, finishing the year 5-1 at the Sun Bowl. Coach Sean Kugler's team was a dismal 2-10 last year, but is now headed to a bowl game for the first time since 2010. Senior quarterback Jameill Showers, a transfer from Texas A&M, will get one more game with UTEP while running back Aaron Jones and a nasty defense has set the tone for a strong 2015 in El Paso, Texas.

Next: TBD



TEXAS SAN ANTONIO (4-8, 3-5)

Game: UTSA 34, North Texas 27. Brandon Armstrong's 21-yard run with 4:18 to play gave Texas San Antonio the season-ending win over its in-state rival. North Texas was in position to get the ball back with 1:54 to play, but Zac Whitfield fumbled a punt return and UTSA recovered, then ran the clock out from there. Tucker Carter threw for 277 yards and two scores and David Glasco II finished with 99 yards rushing and a TD. Andrew McNulty threw for 287 yards and a TD while Jeffrey Wilson ran for 105. UTSA had scored 26 points in the three previous games before Saturday's win.

Takeaway: The Roadrunners will look back at 2014 as a missed opportunity. Coach Larry Coker's kids put together one of the conference tops defenses, but its much-maligned offense couldn't score enough to make UTSA competitive in the league's West Division. The good news is that San Antonio has built a strong foundation with solid recruiting and a plethora of injuries forced young players into action that will pay dividends in 2015.

Next: Season over.



WESTERN KENTUCKY (7-5, 4-4)

Game: Western Kentucky 67, No. 19 Marshall 66, OT. Wide receiver Willie McNeal caught a two-point conversion pass from quarterback Brandon Doughty and the Hilltoppers stunned No. 19 Marshall in Huntington, W. Va. Doughty threw for eight touchdowns and 491 yards in the shootout. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato threw seven TDs, but was also picked off four times. The Thundering Herd didn't lead until Cato's 25-yard TD pass to Hyleck Foster made it 66-59 in overtime.

Takeaway: The Hilltoppers' bowl hopes hung in the balance before Friday's massive upset at No. 19 Marshall, but now WKU is assured a second FBS bowl game in program history. Coach Jeff Brohm's team has become one of the best offensive squads in the nation, and while his team's defense is one of the worst nationally, they proved in the finale they can simply try and outscore teams if need be. That may be the case when they step on the field in the postseason.

Next: TBD.


Southern Miss Golden Eagles
INSIDE SLANT


  Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes
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STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 14 IN CONFERENCE USA:

1. Marshall's failure to defend its home turf and complete a perfect regular season was awfully damning. The Thundering Herd were knocked out of the New Year's Day bowl discussion after a 67-66, overtime loss at home to Western Kentucky. Marshall can still win a Conference USA title, but it many feel like an empty victory considering how much it was already lost moving forward.

2. Louisiana Tech showed that when it all comes together, lookout. The Bulldogs have won three conference games by at least 45 points this season and their latest exploits helped destroy a good Rice team. Tech, now the West Division champions, will be playing with a lot of confidence when it heads to Marshall for the C-USA title game.

3. The job that coach Sean Kugler has done in El Paso, Texas, should not go unnoticed. The Miners of UTEP are 7-5 and going bowling one season after a 2-10 record. UTEP's old-school approach of run-first offense and an attacking defense helped the team go 5-1 at home and become a major player in the league's West Division.

4. Old Dominion's perseverance to finish the season strong was impressive. The Monarchs reeled off three straight wins to finish their first year as a Conference USA and FBS member at 6-6. Coach Bobby Wilder's team struggled at times to stay healthy and keep pace against deeper competition, but their ability to end the year at .500 showed a lot of character.

5. Alabama-Birmingham doesn't know much about its future not this month, not for the next few years. But that didn't stop them from going on the road and taking care of business at Southern Mississippi. Coach Bill Clark deserves coach of the year consideration for bringing together a program that went 2-10 last season and has dealt with rumors of the program's future demise in the near future.



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TEXAS EL PASO

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The resurgence of Texas El Paso football under coach Sean Kugler has been impressive. A win in the postseason would be the next step for a team that hasn't been to a bowl game since 2010.

The Miners (7-5) will travel down the road to the New Mexico Bowl to face Utah State on Dec. 20, looking for their first postseason win since the 1967 Sun Bowl.

"We're excited to be in the New Mexico Bowl and we're going to work our hardest to make the El Paso fans happy," UTEP coach Sean Kugler said.

UTEP went 2-10 last season in Kugler's first year but has made a complete turnaround thanks to an old-school style of football on both sides of the ball. The Miners feature a physical, clock-draining, run-first offense and a hard-hitting defense.

A three-game winning streak from Oct. 11 to Nov. 1 helped the team to a 5-3 start, and wins over North Texas and Middle Tennessee helped secure a bowl bid.

"I couldn't be prouder of the 24 seniors that went out winners," Kugler said after the MTSU win. "Nobody can ever take that away from those guys. That's something they can wear on their sleeves the rest of their lives and nobody can ever take from them."

Utah State (9-4) has lost once since Oct. 25 against Mountain West Conference champion Boise State. The Aggies started the year 3-3 before the winning streak that helped them finish third in the league's Mountain Division.

The injury to Chuckie Keaton at quarterback forced Utah State to alter game plans early in the year. Darell Garretson and Kent Myers have split time at the position; Garretson has thrown for 1,140 yards and eight scores.

"Obviously, we want to win them and this is our chance to go win our third -straight bowl and set another school record," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "It's a tremendous challenge, as well as a motivating factor for us. We've got a chance to win 10 games, which would be the second-best ever at this school. I think we've got great motivation. I'm very happy for our players and our fans."

The matchup will feature two contrasting styles, and UTEP will try to slow down the game, win field position and win the time of possession. If the Miners get behind the high-scoring and quick-strike Aggies team, it could be a long night.



NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Jameill Showers has started all 12 games for UTEP and the Texas A&M transfer has done an admirable job managing the offense. Showers has thrown for just 1,732 yards and is completing just 55.7 percent of his passes. But the senior also has thrown only five interceptions and has run for 372 yards and four touchdowns.

RB Aaron Jones started 11 games he missed the Western Kentucky game with an injury and was a beast in Conference USA play for the second straight season. A sophomore, Jones ran for 1,233 yards and 11 scores one year after totaling 811 yards. He was named to the league's all-freshman team in 2013 and has averaged 5.7 yards per carry this year.

DB Wesley Miller led the UTEP defense with 74 tackles. Miller, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior, recorded a team-high seven pass breakups. Miller started two games as a junior while he battled injuries.

DB Jameel Erving started six games this season and played in all 12. A 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior who transferred from Riverside Community college, Erving played in 10 games as a junior and made 31 stops. This season he made 43 stops and a game-saving interception against Middle Tennessee in the season finale.

BOWL HISTORY: The Miners are 6-7 in the postseason and haven't won a bowl game since the 1967 Sun Bowl. UTEP played in eight Sun Bowl games from 1936 to 1967 but didn't return to a bowl game again until 1988. The New Mexico Bowl is the site of the program's last postseason appearance, a 52-24 loss to BYU in 2010.



QUOTE TO NOTE:
"It gives us the opportunity to have a winning season, send the seniors out as winners, build a foundation for the future and go to a bowl game without having somebody else's help. We did it ourselves." Coach Sean Kugler on securing a bowl bid.



STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: El Paso's run game is its strength. The Miners run for 212.7 yards per game and have scored 27 of their 39 touchdowns via the run. Sophomore Aaron Jones is the catalyst, with 1,233 yards on 217 carries and 11 touchdowns. Perhaps more impressive than Jones' numbers is the fact that UTEP starts just two seniors Jerel Watkins and Paulo Melendez on the offensive line and starting left guard Will Hernandez is only a freshman.

Scouting the passing game: The Miners will not light up the scoreboard via the pass. Senior quarterback Jameill Showers has thrown for 1,732 yards on 146-of-262 passing. UTEP will try for the big play via play-action. Three of the team's top four receivers are either running backs or tight ends.

Scouting the run defense: UTEP has been susceptible against the run, allowing 168.3 yards per game, ranking seventh in C-USA. The Miners allow teams to run for 5.1 yards per carry only two other conference teams are worse.

Scouting the pass defense: Where the Miners make up for a porous run defense is against the pass. The team's 201.5 yards allowed per game were second in the league only to conference champion Marshall. Adrian James, Dashone Smith, Wesley Miller and Devin Cockrell are all playmakers in the Miners' secondary. UTEP has made 10 interceptions and broken up 39 passes.

Scouting the special teams: Sophomore Jay Mattox handles kickoffs, punts and field goals for the Miners. He's 11 of 14 on field goals, has dropped seven punts inside the 20 and totaled 45 touchbacks. Junior Autrey Golden is a dangerous return man, with two returns for TDs this season.

Intangibles: Only the team's redshirt seniors were a part of the last UTEP squad that played in the postseason. The initial excitement of playing in the game may help Sean Kugler's team early, but going against an experienced and explosive Utah State team could be a recipe for disaster if UTEP isn't careful.

ROSTER REPORT:


WR Malcolm Trail returned to the field after a shoulder injury this year. Trail played in 11 games, catching three passes for 64 yards.

RB Nathan Jeffrey, backup to starter Aaron Jones, battled a hamstring injury for most of the season. He played in all 12 games but finished with only 513 yards.

?TE Eric Tomlinson made 18 catches for 128 yards and a TD but started just 10 of 12 games due to injury. The senior should be good to go in the bowl game.



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