AAC NEWS

AAC Notebook: West looks best early in AAC season

Sports Xchange

September 20, 2015 at 9:21 pm.

Memphis had perhaps the biggest win of the week, knocking off MAC favorite Bowling Green. The Tigers scored the final 10 points of the game to prevail in a 44-41 shootout. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis had perhaps the biggest win of the week, knocking off MAC favorite Bowling Green. The Tigers scored the final 10 points of the game to prevail in a 44-41 shootout. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Though conference play hasn’t even started for most American Athletic Conference teams, it looks like the power is heavily tilted to the West.

Navy became the first West Division team to open AAC play, and didn’t disappoint. The triple option overwhelmed East Carolina to secure a 45-21 victory. Keenan Reynolds ran for five touchdowns as the rest of the league began to wonder how to stop the Midshipmen ground attack.

Memphis had perhaps the biggest win of the week, knocking off MAC favorite Bowling Green. The Tigers scored the final 10 points of the game to prevail in a 44-41 shootout.

Houston had the week off, but took care of business against Louisville before getting the break.

Tulsa and Southern Methodist both lost, but gave ranked opponents all they could handle. The Hurricane fell at Oklahoma 52-38, while the Mustangs didn’t quite have enough against TCU and dropped a 56-37 decision. Showing that kind of offensive spark against a top Big 12 team bodes well for what’s going to happen when AAC play starts.

Even previously winless Tulane got into the act, earning a convincing 38-7 victory over Maine.

Contrast that to the East Division. Central Florida dropped to 0-3 with a disappointing loss to Furman, and if Justin Holman doesn’t get back onto the field soon the Knights quarterbacking doesn’t look like it will be good enough to get this team back to a bowl game. East Carolina, fresh off a near-upset of Florida, got run over by Navy. Blake Kemp continues to grow into the quarterback position, but there’s a thin margin for error on both sides of the ball for the Pirates.

Cincinnati slipped past Miami of Ohio, but lost quarterback Gunner Kiel for an indefinite period with a head injury. South Florida looked sloppy against a vulnerable Maryland team and dropped its second in a row.

That leaves Temple and Connecticut to carry the banner. The Owls have been one of the league’s success stories since knocking off Penn State in the opener. Though they looked shaky against Massachusetts, Temple is the clear pick to win the division. Surprising Connecticut appears to be the biggest challenger. The Huskies fell 9-6 at No. 20 Missouri and have a lot of holes, but play hard and look capable on offense and defense.

CENTRAL FLORIDA (0-3, 0-0)

Game: Furman 16, Central Florida 15. In a season that’s gone from bad to worse, the Knights fell to the Paladins thanks to a 55-yard fourth-quarter field goal that proved the winning margin.

Takeaway: Though the Wild Knight formation, led by Nick Patti, had some success early, Central Florida isn’t going anywhere until Justin Holman comes back from his broken finger or until it gets a backup up to speed. Central Florida had less than 160 yards over the final three quarters, as both Bo Schneider and Tyler Harris struggled to run the offense.

Next: at South Carolina, Sept. 26.

CINCINNATI (2-1, 0-1)

Game: Cincinnati 37, Miami (Ohio) 33. Hayden Moore came off the bench in relief of the injured Gunner Kiel and led the Bearcats on the winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to keep the Victory Bell in Cincinnati. It marks the 10th consecutive time the Bearcats have emerged victorious in the rivalry.

Takeaway: This wasn’t the prettiest win in school history, as the Bearcats survived four turnovers and some inconsistent defense. Moore had three completions for 50 yards on the final drive, and ran the ball in for the winning points.

Next: at Memphis, Sept. 24.

CONNECTICUT (2-1, 0-0)

Game: Missouri 9, Connecticut 6. The Huskies played No. 22 Missouri tough on the road, but had too many mistakes to overcome the Tigers. Facing a 42-yard field goal that could have tied the game in the final minute, the Huskies ran a fake instead, but it was intercepted to end the final UConn threat.

Takeaway: Connecticut was aggressive all day, succeeding on a fake punt earlier in the game, but didn’t fool anyone on the fake field goal. Eight penalties for 85 lost yards didn’t help the cause either.

Next: vs. Navy, Sept. 26.

EAST CAROLINA (1-2, 0-1)

Game: Navy 45, East Carolina 21. The Pirates had no answer for the triple option in falling to the Midshipmen on the road. Blake Kemp threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns in defeat.

Takeaway: The East Carolina defense allowed scores on all four of its first half possessions, ending the suspense early. It marks the fourth time in the last five games against Navy that the Pirates have surrendered 35 or more points.

Next: vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 26.

HOUSTON (2-0, 0-0)

Game: Bye week.

Next: vs. Texas State, Sept. 26.

MEMPHIS (3-0, 0-0)

Game: Memphis 44, Bowling Green 41. The Tigers scored the last 10 points of the game to survive a shootout on the road. Paxton Lynch threw for a career-best 386 yards and three touchdowns.

Takeaway: The Memphis defense struggled most of the day, but came through when it counted. Bowling Green didn’t come away with any points on its final four drives of the game.

Next: vs. Cincinnati, Sept. 24

NAVY (2-0, 1-0)

Game: Navy 45, East Carolina 21. It was an impressive AAC debut for Navy, as the Midshipmen rolled over the Pirates at home. Keenan Reynolds rushed for 142 yards and five touchdowns to lead the way.

Takeaway: Navy looked very comfortable in conference play, far more comfortable than East Carolina looked at defending the triple option. Robinson’s five scores leave him seven rushing touchdowns short of Montee Ball’s NCAA record.

Next: at Connecticut, Sept. 26

SOUTHERN METHODIST (1-2, 0-0)

Game: Texas Christian 56, Southern Methodist 37. The Mustangs got plenty of offense, but didn’t have quite enough to knock off the No. 3 Horned Frogs. Matt Davis threw for 330 yards and a touchdown, and ran for 62 yards and two more scores.

Takeaway: SMU trailed 42-17 early in the second half, but scored on its next four possessions to put a scare into TCU. With one more tuneup next week before conference play begins, this looks like a much more dangerous team than many expected.

Next: vs. James Madison, Sept. 26.

SOUTH FLORIDA (1-2, 0-0)

Game: Maryland 35, South Florida 17. The Bulls looked flat throughout and failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities in falling on the road. South Florida picked off three Caleb Rowe passes, but were plagued by penalties, turnovers and misses assignments in key spots throughout the contest.

Takeaway: The upcoming bye week comes at a good time for the coaching staff, giving it a chance to make changes before conference play begins. “We have this bye week to really correct some things,” coach Willie Taggart said. “As a staff, we have to evaluate our roster, the talent that’s out there and we have to make sure we put the right guys on the field. We need to have those guys that can make those winning plays that we talk about.”

Next: vs. Memphis, Oct. 2.

TEMPLE (3-0, 0-0)

Game: Temple 25, Massachusetts 23. Austin Jones kicked a 32-yard field goal with seven seconds left to allow the Owls to escape Gillette Stadium with a victory. The Owls scored the final five points of the game, converting a blocked extra point into a two-point conversion with 1:20 to play.

Takeaway: Despite all protestations to the contrary, it looked like the Owls didn’t show the same focus for this contest as they did for the games against Penn State and Cincinnati to open the season. Jahad Thomas had 164 all-purpose yards, but also lost a critical fumble late in the fourth quarter for the second week in a row.

Next: at Charlotte, Oct. 2.

TULANE (1-2, 0-0)

Game: Tulane 38, Maine 7. The Green Wave picked up their first win of the season with an impressive performance against the Black Bears at home. Maine scored first, but it was all Tulane after that as it closed with 38 unanswered points.

Takeaway: After opening the season with two blowout losses, Tulane really needed to come out firing against its FCS foe. It did so, as Tanner Lee threw for 277 yards despite sitting out most of the fourth quarter, and three different running backs found the end zone.

Next: at Central Florida, Oct. 3

TULSA (2-1, 0-0)

Game: Oklahoma 52, Tulsa 38. In a game that featured a pair of strong offenses, the Sooners had a little too much for its in-state rival. Dane Evans threw for 487 yards and four touchdowns in defeat.

Takeaway: Any doubts about the Tulsa offense should have vanished after it impressed again this weekend. The Hurricane crossed the 600-yard mark for the third week in a row, and showed explosive potential as well. It scored two touchdowns in the final 13 seconds of the first half to cut a 31-10 deficit to just seven points at the break.

Next: at Houston, Oct. 3.

NOTES, QUOTES

–A fake punt is tricky to pull off under the best of circumstances. For Connecticut, its attempt in the final minute of Saturday’s 9-6 loss to Missouri was one that went viral for its ineptitude rather than its success.

Trailing 9-6, the Huskies called their final time out before lining up for a potential game-tying 42-yard field goal attempt. Holder Tom Boyle stood up to throw the ball, but the pass was picked off by Missouri’s Anthony Sherrils to secure the win for the home team.

“I didn’t feel great about the 42-yarder,” coach Bob Diaco said. “I didn’t feel great about the guts of the protection. I didn’t want to put it on Michael [Tarbutt] at that point. We felt good about the look and that Alec [Bloom] would have an opportunity on a small defender. And he did.”

The problem was that the play didn’t fool anyone. Boyle was pressured, and lofted the ball to Bloom. While the tight end was open for a split second, by the time the ball got to him there were three Missouri defenders in position to intercept it.

“As soon as he came off the play-action, there was a guy right there,” Diaco said. “He never got a chance to throw that top-shelf ball that we would have needed.”

It was a tough day all around for the UConn special teams. Bobby Puyol had an extra point blocked after the only Huskies touchdown, and Justin Wain had a punt blocked that resulted in a Missouri safety.

Still, it was a strong effort against a ranked team on the road, and a positive sign for the squad going forward.

“We came here expecting to win a football game,” wide receiver Noel Thomas said. “I tip my hat off to them, they are a great team — but we came here expecting to win.”

–There are no moral victories in college football. That’s particularly true for a program with the history of Southern Methodist, even if it’s suffering through an extended down stretch.

But the Mustangs and their fans nonetheless had some positives to take away from Saturday’s 56-37 loss to No. 3 Texas Christian.

SMU trailed 42-17 after TCU scored on its first two possessions of the second half. But two touchdowns and two field goals on its next four possessions brought the team back to within 42-37 midway through the fourth quarter.

“We were down 42-17, but our guys never gave up,” coach Chad Morris said. “We got a turnover, and we battled right back to score. We also had a couple of stops and went down and scored. That was good to see. I wish we had come away with some touchdowns and not field goals. I felt like that might bite us when I chose to go for the field goals, but I knew if we got it to a one-score game that we’d have a chance.”

Even though the Horned Frogs scored the final two touchdowns, there’s a lot to be optimistic about as league play draws closer.

“I’m extremely proud of our players,” Morris said. “We had tremendous effort, had great attitude on the sidelines, and never gave in. We bent, but we never broke.”

–This isn’t the best timing for Cincinnati to be playing the preseason pick to win the American Athletic Conference’s West Division on short rest.

The Bearcats are coming off a 37-33 victory that saw several key players hurt. Cornerback Adrian Witty suffered what looked to be a serious lower left leg injury. Running back Mike Boone exited early with a hurt ankle.

And of course, quarterback Gunner Kiel left in the third quarter with a head injury. If he can’t play on Thursday — and coach Tommy Tuberville noted that a five-day turnaround would be unlikely — redshirt freshman Hayden Moore likely would get the start.

Moore had four turnovers on Saturday, losing two fumbles and throwing two picks. But he also led the team down the field for the winning points.

Witty’s loss would be equally big. The Bearcats struggled to stop Miami, and Memphis features Paxton Lynch under center. Lynch had 386 yards passing against Bowling Green last week, and is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I loved the way that they battled. They never gave up hope. Never gave up belief. Continued to fight until the end. Made some mistakes that we will go back and correct, but I thought our effort was outstanding and we will continue to get better.” — Tulsa coach Phil Montgomery, after his team’s loss to Oklahoma.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 3 IN THE AAC:

1. Who’s going to stop Tulsa’s offense? Dane Evans threw for 427 yards and four touchdowns against Oklahoma, continuing an impressive September for the Hurricane.

2. Want a sign of the progress that Matt Rhule is engineering at Temple? The Owls had to answer questions about why its victory over Massachusetts wasn’t more impressive. It beats talking about a losing streak, which has tended to be the theme of Temple football conversations over the years.

3. Watch out Montee Ball! Keenan Robinson’s five rushing touchdowns this week leave him with 70 career touchdown carries, seven shy of the former Wisconsin tailback’s NCAA record.

4. Blake Kemp looked a lot more comfortable under center for East Carolina. The first-year starter threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the loss to Navy.

5. Dontravious Wilson missed his second game in a row for Central Florida. He suffered a leg injury in the opener, and there’s no word on when he might be able to return.

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