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October 28, 2010

Week 9: C-USA, MAC, SBC, WAC and Indy

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-10 | SEC

Northern Illinois at Western Michigan, noon
Tulsa at Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m.
East Carolina at UCF, 3:30 p.m.
SMU at Tulane, 3:30 p.m.
Fla. International at Fla. Atlantic, 4 p.m.
Idaho at Hawaii, 11:30 p.m.

UCF and East Carolina have combined to win each of the past three Conference USA championships and four of the five East Division titles.

They meet Saturday in Orlando, and the winner becomes the front-runner to again wear the league crown. The East is stronger than the West this season, which means the East winner is going to be favored to win the league title game and earn the resultant Liberty Bowl berth.

East Carolina already has beaten Southern Miss, considered the other top challenger in the East Division; UCF plays host to Southern Miss on Nov. 13.

Saturday's contest matches East Carolina's high-powered offense and UCF's stout defense. ECU averages 422.9 yards and 36.9 points; that point total increases to 45.2 points in league games. UCF, though, is allowing just 259.7 yards and 13.9 points per game; the Knights have given up just 35 points in three conference games.

"We know we're going into an environment where they'll be waiting for us," Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We're looking forward to going down there. It'll be a great challenge for us, but also a great opportunity."

Both teams have won nine league games in a row, tied for the fourth-longest conference winning streak in the nation. ECU is 8-1 against UCF, though the past two wins were by a combined eight points.

"Everybody's putting in just a little bit more," UCF LB Chance Henderson told the Orlando Sentinel. "A little more time in the film room, that extra focus. ... Everybody knows the importance of this game."

Include McNeill is that category.

"This is a big game; I won't hide it from them [his players]," McNeill said. "But it's also the next game. Everybody thinks that it's coaching rhetoric, but it's not. It's what I believe in. Every game is a big one because it's the only one you play this week. You get one shot."

The Pirates have changed from a run-first, defense-oriented squad to one that relies on their passing attack -- perhaps not surprising since McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley came to ECU from Texas Tech.

The Pirates are throwing it for 303.3 yards per game, and QB Dominique Davis has tossed 18 TD passes. Last season, the Pirates averaged 214.7 passing yards and had 15 touchdown passes.

Davis, a junior, began his career at Boston College before running into academic trouble and transferring to a junior college last season. He is from Lakeland, Fla., about 90 minutes from UCF's stadium on the east side of Orlando.

"He's probably doing some negotiating with his teammates right now for tickets this weekend," McNeill said. "He's saying, 'I'll give you my Navy tickets for your UCF tickets.' "

UCF has run the ball effectively this season despite losing 1,000-yard rusher Brynn Harvey to a knee injury before the season. Senior Ronnie Weaver, who began his career as a walk-on, has come on strong of late, with 393 yards and six touchdowns in the past four games. True freshman QB Jeffrey Godfrey, a four-star prospect from Miami Central, adds excitement because of his running ability. Godfrey, who owns numerous Miami-Dade County passing records, has struggled a bit as a passer, though.

UCF has had 16 players score touchdowns this season, a figure that ties them with Stanford for the largest number of players who have reached the end zone.

Best matchup: East Carolina wide receivers vs. UCF secondary. East Carolina has four players with at least 26 catches, led by senior Dwayne Harris with 54; five of his receptions have gone for touchdowns. WR Lance Lewis, a JC transfer, leads the Pirates with seven touchdown grabs. That deep receiving corps will be going against the best secondary in Conference USA. UCF is ninth nationally in pass defense (158.3 ypg) and eighth in pass efficiency defense. UCF has come up with just six interceptions (though three have been returned for touchdowns), but the Knights have allowed just seven TD passes and opposing quarterbacks are completing just 47.4 percent of their passes. CB Josh Robinson is the most talented player in the secondary, and backup FS A.J. Bouye, who sees time in the nickel package, has made a big impact this season.

Player on the spot: Florida International QB Wesley Carroll. The Sun Belt has two bowl tie-ins, with the New Orleans and GoDaddy.com bowls, and a secondary tie-in with the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which means a league team could fill a slot if the Big Ten doesn't have enough bowl-eligible teams. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Big Ten came up short, which means Florida International -- which is just 2-4 but has a manageable schedule -- has a chance to fill that slot and get its first bowl bid in school history. That said, FIU needs to beat archrival Florida Atlantic to keep its hopes alive, which means Carroll must be sharp Saturday against the Owls. He threw for 288 yards and two TDs in FIU's most recent game, a victory over North Texas on Oct. 16, and also had a 355-yard game in a loss to Maryland in September. FIU has been effective running the ball, and when that happens, coaches just want Carroll to be a game manager. But when the need arises for the ball to be put in the air, Carroll needs to rise to the occasion.

Numbers game: Middle Tennessee senior QB Dwight Dasher became the 19th player in FBS history with 4,000 career passing yards and 2,000 career rushing yards. He has 4,657 passing yards and 2,004 rushing yards.

What they're saying

"It was a good win, but it wasn't great in terms of our side of things and playing as clean as we wanted to." -- Boise State coach Chris Petersen, on his team's 49-20 victory over visiting Louisiana Tech on Tuesday night. Boise allowed 394 yards, committed two turnovers and gave up two sacks; the Broncos had allowed just one sack coming in

"This game is special, there's no question. I'm not going to sit up here and say it's just another game. It's a really big game for our kids. This is a game that, if our guys can figure out some way to get out on top, they'll be talking about it 50 years from now. You don't get to play in a lot of games like that. It's a special opportunity for the University of Tulsa." -- Tulsa coach Todd Graham, whose team plays at Notre Dame on Saturday

"We've tried to give the people of Hawaii something to be proud of. When Mufi [Hannemann] was mayor, he told me that every time we win, the negative calls are cut down. Nobody is complaining about potholes. That's something we talked about as a team: Putting a smile on the faces of our fans. We want to give them something positive in these tough times." -- Hawaii coach Greg McMackin, to the Honolulu Advertiser, on his team's 6-2 start

"We have a 3-4 record, and the nice thing about that is it's our best start since 2003. It's our first-ever win that we've had against UTEP in El Paso -- or against anybody in El Paso. Obviously, it was great to see our kids in the locker room after the game. They constantly tell me, like every player to their coaches, 'Coach, we want to have fun.' And I constantly tell them, 'You have fun in winning. That's when you have fun.' Believe me, they had a lot of fun in that locker room after the game." -- Tulane coach Bob Toledo, whose team upset UTEP last week

"The mood of everyone has been great. When I've stopped in the store to get a cup of coffee, everyone in there is excited and happy. I walked out of the store, and I overheard this lady talking to another lady saying, 'He's the most popular guy in Bowling Green right now.' I was thinking, 'Geez, that's just for one victory.' " -- Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, on what the past few days had been like since Western snapped its 26-game losing streak

"How we prepare is as important as who we play. That is not disrespectful to our opponents. It is where we are right now with a team that is trying to redefine itself. ... Reality is as of three weeks ago, we have a new team -- new quarterback, new defensive line, new players and new leaders." -- Houston coach Kevin Sumlin

"We're 5-3, and our players don't have to be reminded that six comes after five. These last two games, we had a chance to get to six and we didn't do it." -- UTEP coach Mike Price

Etc.: Houston junior WR Tyron Carrier returned a kickoff for a touchdown last week at SMU, the sixth time he has done that in his career. Former Clemson RB C.J. Spiller holds the NCAA career record with seven. ... Army (4-3) is averaging 30.6 points per game; the Black Knights haven't averaged at least 30 points since 1985 and haven't averaged even 20 since 2006. ... Saturday's New Mexico State-San Jose State game matches the nation's two worst scoring offenses. New Mexico State is 119th at 12.4 points per game, and San Jose State is last at 10.0 points per game. ... Louisiana-Lafayette is at Ohio U. on Saturday, and the Ragin' Cajuns haven't won a road non-conference game since Oct. 7, 2006, against Houston. ... Boise State's win on Tuesday was its 21st in a row, which is the nation's longest winning streak. ... Toledo sophomore WR Eric Page moved into 10th place in school history for career receiving yards (1,849). ... Navy will honor its 1960 team at halftime of Saturday's game against Duke. The Midshipmen went 9-2 that season, playing in the Orange Bowl, and RB Joe Bellino won the Heisman. ... Western Kentucky snapped its 26-game losing streak Saturday with a 54-21 win at Louisiana-Lafayette. It also was the first coaching victory for the Hilltoppers' Willie Taggart. Coincidentally, the win came on the same field where Taggart played his last college game; Taggart was a quarterback at Western and the Hilltoppers lost their season finale at ULL in 1998. ... Kent State will retire former star QB Josh Cribbs' No. 9 jersey at halftime of Saturday's game with Ball State. Cribbs now is a wide receiver with the Cleveland Brown. It will be the fourth jersey retired in school history; one of the others belonged to LB Jack Lambert, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his play with the Pittsburgh Steelers. ... Nevada RB Vai Taua is 72 rushing yards away from his third consecutive 1,000-yard season going into Saturday's game with Utah State. ... With its win last week, Temple became bowl eligible for just the fifth time in school history; the Owls have played in the postseason just three times. ... Hawaii senior RB Alex Green ran for 172 yards and four touchdowns in last week's win at Utah State. The four touchdowns are the most for a Hawaii player since 1995, and the rushing total is the highest at the school since 1993.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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