NCF Nation: FIU Panthers

3-point stance: A stat to watch

May, 29, 2012
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1. One of my favorite preseason statistics, one that I find a reliable predictor for success, is the number of career starts returning on the offensive line. According to the 2012 Phil Steele College Football Review, which arrived over the weekend, Ball State is first in the FBS with 115 career starts, followed by NC State (112), West Virginia and Tennessee (105), LSU (104), FIU (103) and Oklahoma (102). Rice has the fewest career starts (15), followed by Penn State, Virginia Tech and UAB (17).

2. As the first anniversary of Jim Tressel’s resignation from Ohio State passes, think about the changes in the Big Ten. Half of the 12 schools have head coaches in their first or second season on campus. By contrast, four of the 10 coaches in the Big 12 have spent at least 11 years in their job: Bill Snyder of Kansas State (20), Mack Brown of Texas (14), Bob Stoops of Oklahoma (13) and Gary Patterson of TCU (11). That’s one more reason the Big 12 is looking resurgent.

3. I interviewed TCU tailback Ed Wesley in Fort Worth 14 months ago and found an uncommonly mature, level-headed player, exactly what the Horned Frogs needed as they came off a Rose Bowl victory. Wesley spoke of how TCU had to put its success behind it and move on in order to achieve more. Wesley, who has rushed for 1,800 yards in the past two seasons, is leaving TCU for family reasons, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and hopes for the NFL supplemental draft. The guess here is that the setback is temporary.

WAC commish Benson jumps to Sun Belt

February, 16, 2012
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Embattled WAC commissioner Karl Benson has jumped to lead the Sun Belt, moving away from a conference that has been decimated by expansion in the past year.

Interestingly enough, one of the first items on the agenda for his new conference: expansion. The Sun Belt currently has 10 football-playing schools, with South Alabama set to join in 2013. Benson noted Thursday that a committee will be formed to evaluate current and future membership.

"Without getting specific in terms of numbers, I think that there’s an advantage to getting to at least 12 to take advantage of additional postseason opportunities," Benson said in a conference call. "The Sun Belt footprint also provides a pool of possible numbers that are already in that footprint: current FBS members, as well as FCS members that have indicated interest in perhaps in moving to FBS. Again it will be a very important piece in the coming months."

One school squarely in that footprint: Louisiana Tech, a member of the league Benson is leaving. Benson declined to talk specifics about schools, but it would make total sense for the Sun Belt to go after the Bulldogs.

“Right now I’m focusing on the 10 football-playing members of the Sun Belt along with the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and focusing on how to make the Sun Belt a stronger conference," Benson said. "It’s not the first time a commissioner moving from one conference to the other. There may be sensitivity and perhaps some awkwardness. I think everyone understands that once you change positions that you are now responsible and obligated to that conference. I will certainly do that with the Sun Belt."

But one wrench that could be thrown into that plan is the future configuration of the future Mountain West-Conference USA association. That group has indicated it would like to grow to potentially 24 teams. Sun Belt schools like North Texas and FIU, for example, would retain footholds in two strong base states.

Benson addressed why it is attractive for teams current in the Sun Belt to remain in the Sun Belt.

"The Sun Belt has established itself as a credible, as a bona fide Division I BCS conference," he said. "I think that we hope to be able to demonstrate in the coming weeks that the future is bright for the Sun Belt -- that in light of the changes that have occurred in Conference USA, in the Mountain West, in the WAC, that the Sun Belt position in terms of the hierarchy of the so-called non-AQ conferences has increased tremendously, and the opportunity for the Sun Belt to succeed in a manner that will provide the current membership with greater bowl opportunities, with greater television opportunities, with greater revenue opportunities that we will be able to demonstrate that the Sun Belt is on par with any other of the non-BCS conferences.”

Mario Cristobal issues statement

January, 31, 2012
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Given the news of the past 24 hours, it only seemed prudent for FIU coach Mario Cristobal to reaffirm his commitment to the Panthers.

Cristobal was tied to the Rutgers job on Monday and reportedly had begun contract negotiations to replace coach Greg Schiano. But ultimately he decided to stay with the program he has rebuilt himself, a program that won a Sun Belt title and been to back-to-back bowl games for the first time under his watch.

“It is a tremendous privilege to be the head coach at FIU," Cristobal said in a statement released Tuesday. "We have a great thing going here and I am excited about the future of the program. Over the past five seasons we have been building something special. Our success has gone beyond the field, as our student-athletes have also excelled academically on their way to earning a very valuable diploma. I am also proud of our team’s continued involvement in the community. My goal is to see this program continue to develop and grow into a major football power. I want our fans to know that I am dedicated to this goal.”

It was the second time in the past few months that Cristobal has been a leading candidate for another job. After Todd Graham left Pitt for Arizona State, Cristobal was a top choice for the Panthers.

“We are extremely pleased that Mario Cristobal has chosen to remain the head coach at FIU," said Pete Garcia, FIU executive director of sports and entertainment. "What Mario has accomplished over the past five seasons is exceptional. It has always been my goal to have the very best coaches here at FIU. Mario continues to shine as one of the brightest young coaches in the nation. Our football team continues to gain momentum on the national scene as a result of Coach Cristobal’s tireless work ethic and passion for this athletic department and university. With the support of our chairman of the board, board of trustees, president and the entire university, we will continue to build the athletic department and all of FIU to the highest levels attainable in higher education.”

Reports: Cristobal staying at FIU

January, 30, 2012
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The search for the new Rutgers coach continues.

Multiple outlets have reported that Mario Cristobal will stay at FIU. Earlier in the day, it was reported that Cristobal was in negotiations to replace Greg Schiano at Rutgers.

Interim head coach Kyle Flood interviewed this week and remains a viable candidate for the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers is in talks with FIU coach Mario Cristobal to become its next coach, ESPN's Joe Schad confirmed Monday.

The New Jersey Press Media and Newark Star-Ledger also reported that Cristobal will replace Greg Schiano, who resigned to take over the Tampa Bay Bucs job last week.

Cristobal's name came up immediately when Schiano left. He is a young up-and-coming coach who previously worked at Rutgers under Schiano. Just like Schiano, he did a masterful job building FIU, taking the young FBS program to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in its history.

Instant analysis: Marshall 20, FIU 10

December, 20, 2011
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Marshall beat FIU 20-10 in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Tuesday night. Here is a look at how it happened:

How the game was won: Marshall special teams. The Thundering Herd have been excellent all season at blocking kicks, and Tuesday night was no exception. With its offense stalling left and right, Marshall got the big play it needed with 7:35 left in the game. FIU set up to punt from its own 22, but Zach Dunston blocked the kick -- the seventh block of the season for Marshall (three kicks, four punts). The Herd appeared to score on the play, but the touchdown was negated because there was an illegal forward pass. A personal foul call on Tyrone Carper was tacked onto the end of the play. But Marshall was able to stay in field goal range, and Tyler Warner made a 39-yard kick that hit off the inside of the upright to put the Herd ahead. Aaron Dobson caught his second touchdown pass of the game on a fourth-down play with 30 seconds left to ice the game.

Turning point: The block was a huge turning point for Marshall. For FIU -- it was the play of T.Y. Hilton. The Panthers were determined to get him going early, and he had some nice plays -- including their only touchdown of the game. But he bruised his thigh in the first half and was mostly ineffective when he returned to the game in the second half. After Marshall kicked its go-ahead field goal, Hilton had a costly play that ended up being a deciding factor. He fumbled after a catch near midfield with 4:24 remaining, and Marshall recovered. It was his second fumble of the game, though he recovered his first.

Player of the game: Dunston. His blocked kick turned the tide in the game.

What Marshall learned: The Thundering Herd won their seventh bowl game in the last eight appearances, and Doc Holliday led this team to a winning record in his second season. This win is huge for the momentum he is building at program eager to restore its past traditions. Rakeem Cato was inconsistent in the game, but playing as a true freshman can only help next season.

What FIU learned: Without an effective quarterback, it is hard to win games. The Panthers decided to start senior Wesley Carroll, but he struggled. Backup Jake Medlock came in briefly in the fourth quarter but was equally ineffective. They had no downfield passing game, also hurt because of a hobbled Hilton. Now the question that looms is whether FIU coach Mario Cristobal returns next season. He is a candidate at Pitt.

Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl Keys

December, 20, 2011
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You saw the preview and prediction, now here are three keys for FIU and Marshall in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl tonight:

FIU (8-4)

1. Block Vinny Curry. There is a reason Curry has become one of the best defensive ends in the nation. "He disrupts offenses completely," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. "We have got to find a way to block him and contain him." FIU has done an excellent job at protecting the quarterback this season, allowing just 13 sacks. Curry has 11 sacks this season, but he also has 21 tackles for loss and has forced six fumbles.

2. Get T.Y. Hilton loose. There is no doubt Hilton is one of the most dangerous players in college football because he can hurt you in so many ways. He catches passes, he is used as a runner out of the backfield, and he can return punts and kicks. A hamstring injury bothered him for a good portion of the season, but Hilton says he is 100 percent, so Marshall is going to have a real threat on its hands. It was Hilton who helped lead FIU to its win in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Toledo last season with his famous hook-and-ladder on a fourth-and-17. He also caught a touchdown pass and scored on a kick return.

3. Score touchdowns. FIU has done a good job of converting red zone opportunities into points, but it has to do a better job of getting touchdowns and not field goals. In 45 red zone chances this season, FIU has kicked 18 field goals and scored just 21 touchdowns. Maximizing those opportunities is essential to winning this game.

Marshall (6-6)

1. Slow down Rhodes and Hilton. In addition to trying to contain Hilton, Marshall also is going to have to slow down FIU running back Kedrick Rhodes. The sophomore finished the regular season with 1,121 rushing yards, 13 shy of breaking the FIU single-season record. But his yardage total is the most since FIU joined the FBS level, and he helped shoulder the load while Hilton was hobbled.

2. Don't ask Cato to do too much. Tron Martinez and Travon Van are going to have to do their part to take the pressure off quarterback Rakeem Cato, who has been up and down this season. Cato is back in the starting lineup and coming off a game in which he threw for a career-high 341 yards, but he also has a tendency to throw interceptions and take too many sacks. FIU is good against the run -- ranking No. 23 nationally -- so this will be a big test for the Herd.

3. Keep it close. Marshall has done exceptionally well in close games this season -- 5-0 in games that are decided by a touchdown or less. Marshall has had a hard time blowing teams out, or even winning comfortably, for that matter. In fact, the Herd are one of seven bowl teams to have been outscored this season. Only UCLA has been outscored by a wider margin, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
FIU posted a school-record eight wins and is making back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history. Marshall is back in a bowl under second-year coach Doc Holliday. Both teams feature the top players in their respective conferences -- T.Y. Hilton has been a force in the Sun Belt, while Vinny Curry has been a menace to Conference USA opponents. This is the first meeting between the schools and just the second time FIU will play a team from C-USA. The Panthers beat UCF this season.

WHO TO WATCH: Hilton. One of the most dynamic playmakers in all of college football, Hilton was slowed earlier this year with a hamstring injury but has returned to form. This season, Hilton broke the FIU and Sun Belt career records for receiving yards (3,443), receiving touchdowns (24), all-purpose yards (7,351) and kickoff return yards (2,819). He also was named to the Sun Belt first-team as a receiver, kick returner and all-purpose player. That's as well-rounded as you can get.

WHAT TO WATCH: Quarterback situation. Neither team has the most stable quarterback situation. Marshall will start true freshman Rakeem Cato, who is back in the starting lineup after he got benched midway through the season. With A.J. Graham out because of a shoulder injury, the Herd must rely on Cato to help lead the team to victory. He was great in an overtime win over East Carolina to get Marshall bowl eligible, but he has been maddeningly inconsistent this season (10 interceptions to 13 touchdown passes). Meanwhile, FIU is expected to play both Wes Carroll and Jake Medlock -- coach Mario Cristobal will probably make a game-time decision. Carroll was benched this season as well but played again after Medlock got hurt. Both are healthy going into this game.

WHY TO WATCH: This is your last chance to get a look at Curry before he moves on to the NFL. The C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, Curry has put together back-to-back outstanding seasons. Cristobal says Curry "discombobulates people." That is an astute way of putting it. This season, Curry is tied for third nationally with six forced fumbles, ranks second in tackles for loss (21) and is sixth in sacks (11).

PREDICTION: FIU 28, Marshall 21. Neither team jumps off the page statistically speaking. In fact, Marshall is the only one of the 70 bowl teams to rank 80th or worse in both total offense and total defense, according to ESPN Stats & Information. FIU has Hilton, and he makes the difference in this game.
The scene is one that FIU coach Mario Cristobal easily recalls, some four years later.

[+] EnlargeT.Y. Hilton
Robert Mayer/US PresswireT.Y. Hilton set multiple school and league records in four seasons at Florida International.
There was his prized recruit, T.Y. Hilton, playing for Miami Springs High, ripping balls out of the sky. Scoring at will. Cristobal turned to the coaches with him and said, "Fellas, this is the guy who's going to change our program."

Cristobal had a little problem. Florida was at the game scouting Hilton, too. Ole Miss and West Virginia were after Hilton as well. FIU had no weight room, no real facilities, no stadium at the time. It was a fledgling program playing in the shadow of the University of Miami, the Gators, the Seminoles, the Dolphins.

But Hilton, a Miami native, hit it off with Cristobal. "He struck me as a man who wanted to create his own footprints," Cristobal says now. Hilton had a tough time choosing between the Panthers and West Virginia. So tough, that he needed a little bit of intervention to help him make a decision.

Hilton placed an FIU cap and a West Virginia cap on his bed. He then had his infant son crawl toward the caps. If his son picked up the FIU cap, he would go there. If he picked up the West Virginia cap, he would go there. Little Eugene Junior picked FIU. Not once. But eight times.

"I never told him I put a Snickers bar behind that cap," Cristobal jokes.

The decision is one that has impacted not only Hilton but the FIU program. Hilton is no doubt the best player in school history, having rewritten the FIU and Sun Belt record books. This season, he set a career high with 64 receptions, and was selected to the Sun Belt first team as a receiver, kick returner and all-purpose player. Hilton owns the school and league marks for receiving yards (3,443), receiving touchdowns (24), all-purpose yards (7,351) and kickoff return yards (2,819).

FIU, meanwhile, is in the midst of the best two-year run in school history -- winning its first Sun Belt title last season and a program-record eight games this season while making back-to-back bowl appearances. Hilton will take the field for the Panthers for the final time Tuesday night against Marshall in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., with yet another chance to make a huge impression on the national stage.

His son, now 4, will be there watching as his daddy closes out his career -- one that Hilton thought would be possible when he arrived at FIU in 2008.

"I knew I could through hard work, because hard work always pays off," Hilton said in a recent phone interview. "Coming in, I took myself to a different level. I did things differently, went back to the fundamentals, and did a lot of conditioning, and that took me to where I am now."

Hilton began the season on a huge tear, and got national headlines after catching seven passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Louisville in Week 2. But the following week against UCF, Hilton strained his hamstring. He tried to play through the injury, but it bothered him for the next month. After beating the Knights, FIU dropped three of its next four games and was in a serious bind with its best player hobbled.

"When I was running, the injury was pulling me back, not letting me do more things I was capable of doing," Hilton said. "I couldn't go in and out of cuts, so it was very painful. But I was able to play through it a little bit just to help the team any way that I could."

Hilton says he is completely healthy and "200 percent" ready to take on his final game. After that, a trip to the Senior Bowl awaits, and then most likely a spot in the pros.

"I'm trying to go out with a bang and let people know my talents and what I'm able to do," he said.
Florida International Golden Panthers (8-4) vs. Marshall Thundering Herd (6-6)

Dec. 20, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

FIU take by college football blogger Matt Fortuna: FIU's 8-4 this season was the best in school history, and it will look to punctuate that mark with a bowl win in its second-ever bowl appearance after beating Toledo last season in the Little Caesar Bowl. The Golden Panthers' Sept. 9 win at Louisville was its first against a BCS automatic qualifying opponent in school history.

Quarterback Wesley Carroll lost his job to Jake Medlock but won it back after Medlock injured his shoulder at Louisiana-Monroe. Carroll, a fifth-year senior, stepped back in and completed 16 of 34 passes for 213 yards and three scores, leading FIU to a 28-17 win.

T.Y. Hilton has been the most explosive player for the Golden Panthers, though he has been hampered by a hamstring injury. Hilton has 950 receiving yards and seven touchdowns while rushing for another 101 yards on just 16 carries. His seven receiving touchdowns tied the school's single-season record. Hilton has also returned a punt for a touchdown and added a 77-yard kickoff return in the regular-season finale. FIU finished the season tops in the nation in punt returns.

FIU's banner season included wins over in-state opponents Florida Atlantic and Central Florida, and the Golden Panthers finished with tied with Florida State for most wins in the state this season.


Marshall take from college football blogger Kevin Gemmell: Needing to win their final two games to become bowl eligible, Marshall clutched up with a win on the road at Memphis before pulling out a 34-27 overtime win at home over East Carolina.

Defensive lineman Vinny Curry is a beast that makes the defense go. He has 11 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss this season (second best nationally). Marshall still ranks in the lower half of the nation in rush defense, yielding 155 yards per game. But Curry makes offenses work for every yard.

In the secondary, senior defensive back Rashad Jackson has had a nice season with nine pass breakups and four interceptions -- including a pair in the ECU win.

Quarterbacking is once again an issue with true freshman Rakeem Cato and A.J. Graham splitting time. But Graham was hurt in the season finale, and with bowl eligibility on the line, Cato orchestrated the overtime victory. Cato has more touchdowns (13), but also has 10 picks on the year. Graham has a 7-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Tron Martinez paces the offense on the ground with 591 yards and an average of 4.1 yards per carry. In the overtime win against East Carolina, he scored the winning touchdown and also showed some versatility out of the backfield, catching three balls for 34 yards.

Non-AQ Players of the Week

November, 21, 2011
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Here are the non-AQ players of the week, as selected by each conference:

C-USA

Offense: G.J. Kinne, QB, Tulsa. Kinne went 21-of-27 for 300 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another in a 57-28 win over UTEP.

Defense: Sammy Brown, LB, Houston. Brown had 10 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and three sacks in a 37-7 win over SMU.

Special teams: Chris Boswell, K, Rice. Boswell made a pair of field goals that went over 50 yards in a 19-7 win over Tulane. His first field goal was a career-best 54-yarder, and he added a 51-yarder in the third quarter.

Independent

Offense: Jake Heaps, QB, BYU. Heaps returned to the starting lineup for the first time since Sept. 30 and led BYU to a 42-7 home win over New Mexico State, going 21-of-36 for 238 yards and a career high-tying four touchdowns.

Defense: Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame. Te'o had a team-high 12 tackles in a 16-14 win over Boston College. He added three quarterback hurries.

Special teams: David Ruffer, K, Notre Dame. Ruffer kicked field goals of 40, 41 and 27 yards against Boston College. He has made eight consecutive field goals dating back to a win over Purdue on Oct. 1, and has made 47 straight extra points.

MAC

East Division

Offense: Branden Oliver, RB, Buffalo. Oliver set the school FBS record with a career-high 235 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns in a 51-10 win over Akron. His performance broke the record set by James Starks (231 against Toledo in 2007).

Defense: Stephen Johnson, LB, Temple. Johnson had a career-high 16 tackles, including a career-best eight solo stops, in a 42-14 win over Army.

Special Teams: Matt Weller, K, Ohio. Weller kicked he game-winning field goal from 23 yards, giving Ohio a 29-28 victory over Bowling Green and the MAC East title. The game-winning field goal was his school record fifth in the game.

West Division

Offense: Chandler Harnish, QB, Northern Illinois. Harnish broke the school record for total offense in a game with 519 total yards in a 31-28 win over Ball State. His 519 yards of total offense is tied for third most by any player in FBS this season.

Defense: Drew Nowak, DL, Western Michigan. Nowak had a career-high 2.5 sacks and as many tackles for loss in a 24-21 win at Miami. Nowak leads the team with 15 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks on the season.

Special Teams: Demarius Reed, KR, Eastern Michigan. Reed returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown at Kent State for the first time in his career. It was the longest return by an Eastern Michigan player since 2002. Additionally, Reed’s return surpassed the entire season punt return yards total for any player during the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 season.

Mountain West

Offense: Brett Smith, QB, Wyoming. Smith accounted for 352 of his team’s 462 yards of total offense in a 31-10 victory over New Mexico. He had a career-high 140 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and threw for 212 yards and a touchdown.

Defense: Tank Carder, LB, TCU. Carder returned an interception 69 yards for a touchdown and tied a season-high with nine tackles (one for loss) in a 34-10 win over Colorado State.

Special teams: Ross Evans, K, TCU. Evans accounted for 10 points (four extra points, two field goals) in a 34-10 victory against Colorado State. His two field goals of 21 and 46 yards gave him 55 for his career, moving him past BYU’s Matt Payne (54, 2001-04) into second place on the conference career chart.

Sun Belt

Offense: Bobby Rainey, RB, Western Kentucky. Rainey rushed for a season-high 214 yards and a touchdown against North Texas, helping the Hilltoppers become bowl eligible. He also caught four passes for 48 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown reception to finish with 262 all-purpose yards.

Defense: Jonathan Cyprien, S, FIU. Cyprien had nine tackles, five of them unassisted, and one interception return for a touchdown in a 28-17 win over ULM.

Special teams: Luther Ambrose, KR, ULM. Ambrose had a 98-yard kickoff return for touchdown against FIU, moving into second place in Sun Belt history with his third career kickoff return for a touchdown.

WAC

Offense: Robert Turbin, RB, Utah State. Turbin ran for a career-high 208 yards and three touchdowns in Utah State’s 49-42 double overtime win at Idaho. Two of his touchdown runs came in the overtime periods and the other was on an 80-yard run in the second quarter.

Defense: Adrien Cole, LB, Louisiana Tech. Recorded a career-high 17 tackles (15 solo) in a 24-20 win at Nevada, ending the Wolf Pack’s 16-game home winning streak.

Special teams: Jens Alvernik, K, San Jose State. Alvernik hit two field goals from 44 and 23 yards to help San Jose State beat Navy, 27-24. He now has 16 field goals on the season, tying the school record.

Weekend Rewind: Non-AQs

November, 21, 2011
11/21/11
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Let's take a look back at the non-AQs in Week 12.

[+] EnlargeKellen Moore
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThanks to a stellar game from Kellen Moore against San Diego State, Boise State remains in play for an at-large berth into the BCS.
Boise rebounds. It may not have been pretty, but the Broncos rebounded from their loss to TCU with a 52-35 win over San Diego State. Kellen Moore went 28-of-40 with four touchdown passes and an interception as Boise State jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead and then held on. The defense, with its top three cornerbacks out, has not looked like the dominated unit we are used to seeing. The Broncos have now given up at least 35 points in back-to-back games for the first time since losing to Hawaii (39-27) and East Carolina (41-38) to close out the 2007 season. It also was the third time in four games Boise State has allowed over 400 yards in total offense. Still, Boise State remains in play for an at-large berth into the BCS. The Broncos are No. 7 in the latest standings, and could be chosen considering the SEC has five teams in the Top 14 and the Big 12 has three. You must be in the Top 14 to be considered for an at-large berth and there is a limit of two teams per conference. If Houston gets the automatic berth into the BCS, that would leave three at-large spots open.

Conference race update. Here is how the conference races are shaking out.

Conference USA: The winner between Houston and Tulsa on Friday wins the West and clinches a spot in the C-USA title game. Southern Miss lost to UAB 34-31 but can still clinch the East Division with a win over Memphis on Saturday or a Marshall loss.

MAC: Ohio won the East and is in the MAC title game. In the West, Northern Illinois clinches a return trip with a win over Eastern Michigan or a Toledo loss at Ball State.

Mountain West: TCU wins the outright league title with a victory over UNLV on Dec. 3.

Sun Belt: Arkansas State can win the league title outright with a win over Troy on Dec. 3 or a Western Kentucky loss to Troy this Saturday. The Red Wolves have already accepted an invitation to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. ULL also has been invited to the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. FIU and Western Kentucky are also bowl eligible, but the Sun Belt only has two tie-ins. There are backup agreements with the Little Caesars Pizza and BBVA Compass Bowls, but it appears as if there will not be open slots in either of those games.

WAC: If Louisiana Tech and Nevada win out, both would get a share of a conference title.

Game of the week. Louisiana Tech 24, Nevada 20. The Wolf Pack built a comfortable 20-3 lead on the Bulldogs, and appeared set to cruise to a win in their quest to win an outright WAC title. Nevada was the only undefeated team in the league going into the game; Louisiana Tech had one loss. But Colby Cameron engineered an incredible fourth-quarter comeback to lift the Bulldogs to a 24-20 win. Now they have a chance to clinch a share of the WAC title Saturday against New Mexico State. Cameron threw three touchdown passes in the span of nine minutes, hitting Taulib Ikharo with 51 seconds to play to complete the rally. Nevada had two first downs on its final three possessions. Adrien Cole finished with 17 tackles, and Cameron finished 25-of-45 for 355 yards and three touchdowns. The Bulldogs have now won six straight -- the longest winning streak since 1999.

Bowl streak ends. After Navy beat SMU last week, hopes brightened for the Midshipmen to keep its bowl streak alive. Navy had games left with San Jose State and Army -- two teams with losing records. Win out, and go to a bowl game. But the Midshipmen blew several opportunities on offense and could not stop San Jose State running back Brandon Rutley, losing 27-24 to the Spartans. The loss breaks a streak of eight straight bowl appearances. If you were to encapsulate this season for Navy, it would be about an uncharacteristic lack of discipline and missed chances to win. Four of its seven losses have been by three points or less.

"My worst nightmare came true. We were sleepwalking to start the game. We left a ton of points out on the field offensively. We had some uncharacteristic mental lapses that really hurt us," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the game. "We didn't deserve to win. We played horribly, and it starts with me. Obviously, I didn't do a good job of getting us ready."

Helmet stickers

Sammy Brown, LB, Houston. Brown had 10 tackles, included 4.5 for a loss and three sacks, in a 37-7 win over SMU. He was selected Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.

Chandler Harnish, QB, Northern Illinois. Harnish broke the school record for total offense with 519 total yards in a 31-28 win over Ball State on Tuesday night. His 519 total yards is tied for third most by any player in FBS this season. Harnish passed for 338 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 181 yards and a touchdown.

Bobby Rainey, RB, Western Kentucky. Rainey rushed for a season-high 214 yards and a touchdown against North Texas, helping the Hilltoppers become bowl eligible. He also caught four passes for 48 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown reception. Rainey needs 82 yards to become the school's all-time leading rusher.

Brandon Rutley, RB, San Jose State. Rutley ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns, and caught a career-high eight passes for 101 yards in a 27-24 win over Navy. Rutley is the first San Jose State player to have 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game. The Spartans now have four wins -- one more than 2009 and 2010 combined.

Brett Smith, QB, Wyoming. Smith accounted for 352 of his team's 462 yards of total offense in a 31-10 victory over New Mexico. In addition to rushing for a career-high 140 yards and two touchdowns, Smith completed 23-of-38 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown. Wyoming is now bowl eligible.

Non-AQ Players of the Week

November, 14, 2011
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Here are the non-AQ players of the week, as selected by each conference.

C-USA

Offense: Charles Sims, RB, Houston. Sims rushed for a career-high 207 yards on only 10 carries with two touchdowns to lead Houston to a 73-17 win at Tulane. He had 252 all-purpose yards in the game.

Defense: Shawn Jackson, LB, Tulsa. Jackson had nine total tackles, including eight solos and three tackles for loss, and added one pass breakup in a 59-17 win against Marshall.

Special Teams: Danny Hrapmann, K, Southern Miss. Hrapmann tied his own school and Conference USA records by making five field goals in a 30-29 win against UCF.

Independent

Offense: Tommy Rees, QB, Notre Dame. Rees set a season high for completions with 30 in a 45-21 win against Maryland. Rees completed 30-of-38 pass attempts for 296 yards and two touchdowns, his 18th and 19th passing touchdowns of the season.

Co-Defense: Thomas Holloway, DB, Army. Jabaree Tuani, DE, Navy. Holloway set a career high with 14 tackles in a 27-12 loss to Rutgers. He also got his first career interception. Tuani had four tackles and a sack in a win against SMU.

Special teams: David Ruffer, PK, Notre Dame. Ruffer made a career-long 52-yard field goal against Maryland.

MAC

East Division

Offense: Matt Brown, RB, Temple. Brown made his first start of the season and rushed 24 times for 123 yards and a touchdown in a 24-21 win against Miami (Ohio).

Defense: Roosevelt Nix, DT, Kent State. Nix tied a career-high with six tackles in a 35-3 win against Akron. Nix helped his defense hold Akron to just 58 yards rushing on 27 attempts.

Special Teams: Paul Hershey, P, Ohio. Hershey had five punts for 205 yards, including a 51-yard punt in a win over Central Michigan. He had four go inside the 20.

West Division

Co-Offense: Alex Carder, QB, Jordan White, WR, Western Michigan. Carder threw for a program record 548 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for another in a 66-63 loss at Toledo. The yardage total ranks second all-time in MAC history and his passing TD total is tied for the most in conference history. White had 238 yards receiving and became the school leader in career receiving yards leader (3,678), single-season receptions (111) and single-season receiving yards (1,402).

Defense: Brad Ohrman, DL, Eastern Michigan. Ohrman had eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack in a 30-17 victory over Buffalo.

Special Teams: John Potter, K, Western Michigan. Potter made a career high nine extra points at Toledo. Potter became the MAC's record holder for consecutive PATs made with 114.

Mountain West

Offense: Casey Pachall, QB, TCU. Pachall went 24-of-37 for a career-high 473 yards and five touchdowns in a 36-35 win at Boise State. The five touchdown passes tied a TCU single-game record, while his 473 yards marked the second-highest single-game total in school history.

Co-Defense: Carmen Messina, LB, New Mexico. Nat Berhe, DB, San Diego State. Messina had his fifth straight double-digit tackle performance with 14 stops in a 21-14 victory against UNLV -- the first of the season for the Lobos. He also forced a fumble. Berhe tied a team-high with six tackles, forced a fumble and also had an interception in San Diego State’s 18-15 win at Colorado State.

Special teams: Anson Kelton, P, TCU. Kelton averaged 45.8 yards on four punts in a 36-35 win at Boise State.

Sun Belt

Offense: Derek Thompson, QB, North Texas. Thompson set a North Texas single-game record by completing 82 percent of his passes – going 31-of-38 -- to lead North Texas to its first win ever at Troy. He completed 17 consecutive passes in the game and threw for 331 yards.

Defense: Brandon Joiner, DL, Arkansas State. Joiner tied a school and conference record with four sacks, and he also tied his career high with a team-best eight tackles in a 30-21 victory against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Special teams: T.Y. Hilton, KR, FIU. Hilton returned a punt 97 yards for touchdown in a win over FAU. The punt return is the longest in FIU history.

WAC

Offense: Cody Fajardo, QB, Nevada. Fajardo accounted for 371 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-28 win against Hawaii. He completed 25-of-36 passes for 290 yards and a career-high three touchdowns with no interceptions. He also rushed 19 times for 81 yards including a 25-yard touchdown run in the second half.

Defense: IK Enemkpali, DE, Louisiana Tech. Had six tackles, including 3.5 for a loss of 18 yards, in the 27-7 win at Mississippi. Enemkpali had a sack for a loss of seven yards and also forced a fumble.

Special teams: Taveon Rogers, KR, New Mexico State. Rogers returned eight kickoffs for a career-best 246 yards -- including a 99-yard return for a touchdown -- in a 48-45 win against Fresno State. He had a school-record 412 all-purpose yards in the game.

Non-AQ players of the week

October, 31, 2011
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Here are the non-AQ players of the week, as selected by each conference. The independent players are chosen by a nationwide media panel.

Conference USA

Offense: Case Keenum, QB, Houston. Keenum threw for 534 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns, breaking the NCAA mark for career touchdown passes in a 73-34 win over Rice.

Defense: Milton Howell, DB, Tulsa. Howell tied school and conference records with three interceptions for 44 return yards a 38-7 win over SMU.

Special teams: Tyron Carrier, KR, Houston. Carrier tied the NCAA FBS all-time record with his seventh career kickoff return (matching Clemson’s C.J. Spiller). Carrier returned the opening kickoff 100 yards.

Independent

Offense: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame. Floyed had six receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown in Notre Dame’s 56-14 home win over Navy. Floyd and his first career rushing touchdown in a win over Navy.

Defense: Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame. Te'o had a game-high 13 tackles including 2 1/2 tackles for loss.

Special teams: J.D. Falslev, KR, BYU. With the Cougars trailing 35-13 late in the third quarter, Falslev returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown --BYU’s first punt return for a touchdown since Nov. 9, 2006, a span of 64 games.

MAC

East Division

Offense: Zac Dysert, QB, Miami. Dysert went 20-for-25 for 313 yards and a record-tying five touchdowns in a 41-13 victory over Buffalo. Dysert now has 7,166 career passing yards, ranking second behind only Ben Roethlisberger (10,829).

Defense: Luke Batton, LB, Kent State. Had 10 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry in a win over Bowling Green.

Special Teams: Freddy Cortez, K, Kent State. Went 2-for-2 on field goal attempts against Bowling Green.

West Division

Offense: Jordan White, WR, Western Michigan. White became the school's career receptions leader in a 45-35 win over Ball State with nine catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. White holds the record with 261 career receptions and is over 1,000 yards for the season.

Defense: Johnnie Simon, Western Michigan. Had 10 tackles, a pass break up, two hurries and his second career interception in a 45-35 win over Ball State.

Special Teams: David Harman, K, Central Michigan. Kicked a career-high three field goals and accounted for nearly half of Central Michigan's points in a 23-22 win at Akron.

Mountain West

Co-offense: Brett Smith, QB, Wyoming. Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State. Smith threw for a career-best 341 yards and scored four total touchdowns in a 30-27 upset over San Diego State. Hillman had 25 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns. His 99-yard touchdown in the third quarter was the longest rush in the nation in 2011 and is also the longest in MW history. Hillman also had a 71-yard touchdown reception, finished with a career-high 305 all-purpose yards.

Co-Defense: James Dunlap, DL, UNLV. Jonathan Anderson, S, TCU. Dunlap had a career-high 4.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, seven tackles and a forced fumble in a 38-35 win over Colorado State. Anderson finished with a career-high and team-best 17 tackles and recorded his first career interception in a 38-28 win over BYU.

Special teams: Deante' Purvis, KR, UNLV. Had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and posted 202 total yards on five kick returns in a 38-35 win over Colorado State.

Sun Belt

Offense: Alonzo Harris, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette. Harris ran for a career-high 189 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Middle Tennessee, and became the first Cajuns running back to post a 100-yard game since 2009.

Defense: Melvin White, DB, ULL. White had an interception, fumble recovery and seven tackles in the win over Middle Tennessee.

Special Teams: Jack Griffin, K, FIU. Griffin tied a career-best with three field goals in a 23-20 overtime win over Troy. Griffin kicked a 20-yarder that tied the score with 3:31 to go in regulation, then won the game with a 22-yarder in overtime.

WAC

Offense: Cody Fajardo, QB, Nevada. Went 19-of-29 passes for 283 yards with no interceptions and rushed 13 times for 60 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-34 win at New Mexico State. Nevada trailed 27-20 at halftime before Fajardo scored two third-quarter touchdowns to give the Wolf Pack the lead for good.

Defense: Aaron Brown, LB, Hawaii. Had a team-high nine tackles (five solo), including 1.5 for a loss, and an interception in a 16-14 win over Idaho.

Special teams: Kenton Chun, K, Hawaii. Kicked a game-winning 35-yard field goal with 32 seconds remaining in a victory at Idaho. Chun also made a 27-yard field goal. Entering the game, he had one career field goal attempt, making a 38-yarder in the season opener against Colorado.

FIU Panthers off to a fast start

September, 21, 2011
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FIU coach Mario Cristobal has taken his Panthers to places they have never been: a conference championship, a bowl game, a little bit of national credibility.

He began the hard work five years ago, yet the breakthrough season of 2010 was just the first step to what he envisions for his program. Indeed, what happened last season has helped lay the groundwork to start this one: the first 3-0 start in school history; first win over a team from an AQ conference; first time receiving votes in both the AP and coaches’ polls.

“We’re at the point now where we feel confident playing,” Cristobal said in a phone interview. “It was a great thing for our football program to be 1-0 for the first time, to carry over the momentum from the bowl game into the first game of the season. This is a game of momentum and confidence, and every single time you have the opportunity to have success early on, it builds that. We still have miles to go, but every little bit helps.”

[+] EnlargeWesley Carroll
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireWesley Carroll and FIU beat an AQ program for the first time when they faced down Louisville.
The bowl victory over Toledo a year ago helped springboard FIU into the toughest offseason ever. Players were more motivated than ever to continue the good work of 2010, to get people to see them as a solid program and not just living in the shadow of the University of Miami.

Cristobal let it be known time and again that teams win games with the work they put in during the long winter, spring and summer months. His players bought that message.

“We worked our you know whats off,” quarterback Wesley Carroll said. “We saw the extra preparation, extra film study. More and more guys were getting in film room, studying opponents and it’s shown up. Talk about one of the hardest working teams in the country, and it’s showing.”

FIU easily beat North Texas to start the season, then traveled to play Louisville in Week 2. Some thought this a fashionable upset pick because the Panthers have an experienced group returning and one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country in receiver T.Y. Hilton.

Hilton burned Louisville for 201 yards receiving, and the Panthers pulled the upset 24-17. When the final seconds ticked off, Cristobal pumped his fist and jumped around, realizing what his players had accomplished. One season ago, they nearly pulled off upsets over Rutgers and Texas A&M but did not finish in the fourth quarter.

This year, they did.

“It was a moment we worked toward for a long time,” Cristobal said. “We finally found a way to finish against a BCS team. … In terms of the development of a football program, there are painful and tough steps. You cannot skip those and those [losses] were part of the process for us to learn what it was going to be like in the fourth quarter against a BCS program. That experience proved invaluable. We were able to push ourselves. We responded appropriately and got it done.”

FIU followed up the win over Louisville with an impressive 17-10 victory over UCF. The Panthers did it despite losing Hilton in the game to a sore hamstring. Cristobal expects Hilton to be able to play Saturday against Louisiana.

The 3-0 start has gotten more people noticing FIU than ever. That has led to chatter about Cristobal being the next up-and-coming coach to get called for a bigger job.

Cristobal deflects that question, saying, “The only thing on my mind is taking this program and elevating it as high as it can go. The sky is the limit and there is no limit for this program. … We’re going to build a premier football program and one day become a perennial champion.”

It could happen again this season. A glance at the rest of the schedule shows FIU should be favored in all its remaining games. Duke and Akron are the only two remaining nonconference contests on the slate.

“It’s on us. We feel we can be 1-0 at the end of every night. We just have to take it week by week,” Carroll said. “We can’t worry about the past games and future games. If we take that approach, we have a chance to be successful.”

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