Week 14 was the final week of action for many teams in Conference USA but it also set the stage for the conference championship game next weekend.
Kicking off the weekend was the long awaited matchup of East Carolina and Marshall in Huntington on Friday afternoon. The Thundering Herd came out swinging in what amounted to be the Conference USA East Division Championship game as they posted a 17-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Pirates showed life in the second quarter as they cashed in two Marshall turnovers into points and closed the gap to 24-10 heading into halftime. However, the second half belonged to Rakeem Cato and the Herd as they scored five more touchdowns on their way to the blowout 59-28 victory. Marshall will play for their first Conference USA crown next weekend but had to await the Saturday results to find out who their opponent would be from the West.
The next game up was the “Shula Bowl” as Florida Atlantic tried to become bowl eligible against their rivals FIU in Boca Raton on Friday. Lead by their strong defense and effeicient offense, the Owls controlled this game from start to finish to earn the 21-6 victory over the Golden Panthers. Despite earning their sixth win for bowl eligibility, it appears the Owls might be on the outside looking in as Conference USA only has six bowl tie-ins for its now seven bowl eligible teams.
Southern Miss had one last chance this season to end their long winless streak as they traveled to Birmingham to face UAB on Saturday. The Blazers started out strong as they held a 21-13 lead at the intermission but the second half would belong to the Golden Eagles. Freshman quarterback Nick Mullens and the Southern Miss offense finally awoke as the young signal caller threw four of his five touchdown passes in the second half to blow out UAB 62-27.
In their final game as a member of Conference USA, defending champion Tulsa faced off against North Texas at home on Saturday. The Golden Hurricane’s nightmare season finally ended with Mean Green running back Brandin Byrd rushing for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns to lead North Texas to the dominant victory, 42-10.
Rice entered Saturday only needing a victory over Tulane to secure a spot in the Conference USA Championship game. The Owls looked to be well on their way when they jumped out to an early 17-3 lead at halftime. Despite being dominated statistically, the Green Wave mad a run in the second half to close the margin to 3 points in the fourth quarter but the Owls allowed nothing more and won 17-13. Rice will face off against Marshall next weekend in the Conference USA Championship game. The location of the contest will be determined by which team is higher in the BCS rankings that are set to be released Sunday night.
Perhaps the most surprising team in Conference USA this season was newcomer UTSA, who had an outside shot at the West crown when they took on Louisiana Tech on Saturday. This game was over by the first quarter as the rebuilding Bulldogs were no match for the upstart Roadrunners. UTSA quarterback Eric Soza racked up over 300 yards of total offense to lead his team to the 30-10 win in San Antonio. The Roadrunners finish the season with a 7-5 record but will likely be staying home this bowl season due to their recent entry into FBS.
Another newcomer finished off their impressive first regular season in Conference USA when Middle Tennessee played host to UTEP on Saturday. The Blue Raiders were lead by their Senior quarterback Logan Kilgore, who was once recruited over by the Miners. Kilgore ended up passing for 325 yards and 2 touchdowns as Middle Tennessee blew out UTEP 48-17. The Blue Raiders finish the season with an 8-4 record and await an invitation to learn where their bowl destination will be.
Future Conference USA member Western Kentucky played in their final Sun Belt game on Saturday as they faced off with Arkansas State in Bowling Green. Despite turning the ball over three times, the Hilltoppers had an opportunity to win the game as they started a drive from their 1-yard line with 5:30 remaining and down by four points. Aided by Red Wolves penalties and timely plays, Western Kentucky drove the length of the field and scored the game-winning touchdown with 10 seconds remaining to earn the 34-31 victory. The Hilltoppers finish the regular season with an 8-4 record but with the Sun Belt only having two bowl tie-ins and WKU’s impending departure from the conference, they will likely stay at home this bowl season.