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Mid-Major Monday Tuesday

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It's better to burn out that to fade away.

Mid-majors took the aging cliche to heart against the big boys this week, running out to leads in game after game and burning out game after game under the patient conquest of talent, depth and graft (for the conspiracy theorists!). To wit, spectacular chokers of the weekend past:

• Marshall led West Virginia 13-6 at the half, holding WVU to 118 total yards and consistently neutralizing Steve Slaton and Pat White - the Mountaineers punted six times in seven first half possessions and Slaton averaged less than two yards per carry. The Herd were subsequently outscored 42-10 in the second half and allowed six touchdown drives of 50 yards or longer in five possessions in a 48-23 rout.

And everything had been going so well...
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• Nevada led at Northwestern 24-10 at the half, extending its lead on a 48-yard pass from Nick Graziano to Kyle Simmons on the final play of the second quarter. The Wolfpack were outgunned 26-7 in the second half, losing and re-taking the lead in the fourth quarter before allowing the winning touchdown pass from C.J. Bacher to Ross Lane with 21 seconds to play.

• Off a five-touchdown shellacking in East Lansing, very, very young UAB led Florida State 17-3 in the second quarter, then answered a Seminole rally in the third to tie the game at 24. FSU scored ten points down the stretch to push the final to 34-24.  

• TCU took advantage of two Colt McCoy interceptions in the first half to run out in front of Texas 10-0, a seemingly secure margin for the Frogs' rabid defense. The `Horns proceeded to outscore TCU 34-3 in the second half and sealed a dominant comeback by returning a blocked punt for touchdown in the fourth.

• Southern Miss scored first and led at various points in the first half 13-7 and 16-10 at Tennessee, but gave up the lead on a late touchdown before the half and sealed its fate by fumbling into an eventual Vol touchdown in the third quarter that put the game out of reach.

• UTEP scored three touchdowns in the first quarter at Texas Tech and led the Raiders 21-7 before Tech winged it back in the Miners' faces: Mike Leach's li'l buccaneers outscored El Paso 38-10 over the last three quarters.

• UNLV led Wisconsin 7-0 early and 13-12 with Sergio Aguayo's kick midway through the fourth. The Badgers drove the field with the same score two possesions later, freeing Tyler Donovan for the winning touchdown run from 29 out with 1:53 to play.

So much heartbreak there, and in Minnesota, where the Ohio-based Miami fell to the Gophers in double overtime; and in Fort Collins, where Colorado State hung with Cal early and made it a six-point game with a late rally; and in L.A., where BYU's offense substantially outpaced UCLA's but came up short in a second half comeback bid.

Valiant and ultimately excruciatin efforts everywhere you look. And yet, it all adds up to...

Steppin' Up
Hail to the Conquering Heroes
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Of all the opportunities, the fortunate matchups, the fast starts, the close calls, for Middle Tennessee racking up 550 yards on Louisville, in twenty-six tries, only one mid-major team actually finished on top of an opponent from a BCS conference:

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Ben Hartman missed three field goals Saturday, including two (from 31 and 37 yards) on East Carolina's first two possessions of the fourth quarter. The Pirates thus remained locked with North Carolina at 31-31 throughout that frame, until ECU's defense held a UNC fourth down attempt at midfield with less than a minute on the clock, Patrick Pinkney completed two passes to the Tar Heel 22, and on the final snap of the game, Hartman at last buried a redemptive, 39-yard game-winner for mid-majors and tentative five-and-a-half-point favorites everywhere. Solidarity, gentlemen, and, of course, yarrrrrr.

The Record vs. BCS Conferences
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Last week: 1-25
Avg. Score: 38-22

Season to Date: 7-46
Avg. Score: 36-19

What Should Have Been...
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Fresno State gave the ball away twice in the first half at Texas A&M and was called for a safety on an intentional grounding penalty from its own end zone, and not surprisingly found itself trailing 19-0 at the half. In defiance of the raucous "Twelfth Man," though, FSU forced overtime by scoring four touchdowns in the second half, the last on fourth down with no time on the clock, on the most desperate three-yard flip to a tight end in school history.

After spending upwards of three hours torturously digging itself into and then pulling itself out of a hole in one of the toughest stadiums in the country, Fresno had its first, fleeting thrill of victory in the first overtime, after holding TAMU to a field goal on its possession, when Tom Brandstater hit a a wide open Marlon Moore on a crossing route inside the five on first down. Moore turned up the sideline for what looked at first like an easy touchdown to win. As he was being pushed out of bounds, though, he reached for the goalline with the ball, lost his grip, and watched A&M recover in the end zone with no Bulldogs in sight.

Fresno got the ball back - after an unnecessary long but ultimately correct replay - way back on the A&M 12 due to a roughing the passer penalty, but had to kick a field goal and never came as close the victory again.

Inches. They matter.
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...and What Never Had a Prayer
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Akron kept the score admirably close with Ohio State longer than anyone should have expected (just 3-2 Buckeyes at halftime and 20-2 at the end), but it's tough out there for an offense that can only generate 69 yards total offense and three first downs the entire game. The Zips went three-and-out thirteen straight times and punted on every possession until their last, when they fumbled. The defense, by tackling Chris Wells in his own end zone in the first quarter, was responsible for the only Akron points of the afternoon.

And though the final ledger says Florida allowed 336 yards and 31 points to Troy, the Gators were up 49-7 at the half by virtue of six unanswered touchdowns in the first and second quarters - all Troy's yards and points, even the 17 it put up in the third quarter alone, were insignificant, garbage time stats hiding an unabashed blowout. Middle Tennessee State, the Trojans are not.

Mid-Major Game(s) of the Week
While you were enjoying a delicious, nutritious and not at all contrived "Fourth Meal"...
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Perhaps it's best to view Louisville's Thursday night game with Middle Tennessee in the context of an experiment: all things being equal, what would happen if we controlled for defense as an independent variable. Hypothesis: a copious allotment of yards and points.

Actual result: touchdowns on the first eleven possessions of the game. Ethicists finally pulled the plug sometime towards the end of the second quarter.

The final tally from this night for both teams - 1,277 yards, 100 points, 53 first downs, 8.2 yards per snap - is likely to stand for the rest of the year. So fantastic was the defensive disappearance, MTSU fans decided to pay an impromptu homage to the defenders at the half:

In this case, imitation was the sincerest form of mockery*, and maybe it worked, briefly: Louisville stopped the Raiders' first four drives and, after fumbling to open the half itself, looked like a top ten team against Middle Tennessee State by roaring to 24 points on four straight possessions. MTSU only got in one more hit, an allegedly spectacular 79-yard touchdown at the end of the third quarter by Phillip Allen that matched the school's longest run since it moved up to the I-A level. Innovative strategy by the physically outmanned Raiders? Deception sprung from the ever-churning mind of coach Rick Stockstill? Exceptional performance by an experienced offensive line? General hoodwinkery?

"We really limited our offense in the running game," Stockstill said. "(On offense) we basically ran three running plays because we had such a new offensive line. We couldn't teach them everything in such a short period of time. I thought our line did an excellent job. I thought they protected great. I thought they did a great job."

The Blue Raiders had only two players -- tight end Stephen Chicola and left tackle Franklin Dunbar -- manning the same position on the offensive line in the second game. Jamal Lewis started at left guard in place of David Price. Brandon Nix, who played center against Florida Atlantic, moved to right guard for the Louisville game. Mark Thompson, who was the starting right tackle against the Owls, shifted to center. True freshman Mark Fisher made his first career start at right tackle.
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(via the Murfreesboro Post)

You'd better bring it, Mr. Brohm. Bring it every single night.

Sun Belt Win Watch
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Through two weeks, the Sun Belt is 0-13 against the rest of the nation, and went 0-7 last week (not including Arkansas State's game with Memphis - won by ASU last year - which was cancelled due to weather). The conference's only win was earned by Florida Atlantic over Middle Tennessee State, a Sun Belt game.

Mid-Major Player(s) of the Week
Non-Brennan Division
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The only game that could have possibly rivaled Louisville-Middle Tennessee for sheer,  eyes-rolling-into-your-head offensive absurdity was SMU-North Texas, a game won by the Mustangs despite a 600-yard passing effort by UNT quarterback Daniel Meager (46-64, 601 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT), who benefitted from completing many, many passes to receiver Casey Fitzgerald, a young man who deserves his own line, really:

Casey Fitzgerald vs. SMU: 18 receptions, 327 yards, 2 touchdowns

Again, I stress that North Texas lost this game in spite of its Texas Tech-like passing prowess, largely by allowing SMU's Justin Willis (435 total yards, 30-42 passing, 2 TD, 1 INT) to run and pass at will. At least the Mean Green, with Todd Dodge's high school-bred, damn-the-receivers'-lungs passing philosophy, might make the Sun Belt slightly interesting at times. Slightly.

Patrick Pinkney emerged against Virginia Tech as East Carolina's best option at quarterback, and solidified his hold in the four-man derby by completing 31 of 41 for 406 yards and three touchdowns with no picks and leading the last-minute drive for the winning field goal against North Carolina ... Buffalo earned one of its most lopsided wins since joining the Bowl Subdivision, a 42-7 rout of favored Temple, in large part because of the efforts of linebacker Larry Huchinson (7 tackles, 4 for loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), who led the push that surprisingly held the Owls to 141 yards total offense ... And Western Michigan's Brandon West did everything possible to prevent  Indiana's 37-27 win over the Broncos, and I mean literally everything short of playing quarterback, which might have been a good idea: West ran 12 times for 51yards, caught five passes for 83 yards and had five kickoff returns for 212 yards and a touchdown, leaving him with a staggering 346 total yards on 22 touches, about 15.7 every time he had it in his hands.

Obligatory Brennan Stat Watch
While desperately attempting to retain grains of skepticism.
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Brennan had what can only be categorized as an average night by the standards of one who has sold his eternal soul to the gods, especially against a defense that finished 119th in total and scoring defense in 2006: 43 of 61 (70.5 %), 548 yards, four touchdowns, one interception.

For the season, assuming Brennan completes all ten of Hawaii's remaining games, he is on pace to complete 616 of 808 passes (76.2 %) for 7,712 yards (9.5 per attempt), 80 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.

An Arbitrary Mid-Major Top 10
This is more of a power poll.
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1. Hawaii (2-0) • With a bullet because of the defense. Everyone below the Warriors bit the dust, abeit against far better competition than Louisiana Tech.
2. TCU (1-1) • Had Texas writhing on the ropes, and I wasn't all that surprised. Likely will not lose again, unless it's at...
3. BYU (1-1) • The Cougars lost despite outgaining UCLA by 200 yards - more on this tomorrow, hopefully - so the penalty for going down to a more talented, ranked Pac Ten team on the road is not severe. There is none, actually: BYU was No. 3 last week, too.
4. Boise State (1-1) • Ditto, although the Broncos fall because Washington remains Washington and UCLA is half a rung up the ladder at the moment (this may change in two weeks, when those two play). Boise hadn't lost in the regular season since 2005, at Fresno State.
5. Wyoming (2-0) • Cruised against Utah State, so still lurking as a candidate for this season's `obscure upstart' role. Depends on this week's trip to aforementioned Boise.
6. Central Florida (1-0) • Idle. Coasting on first half at NC State and an abundance of ineptitude below.
7. Air Force (2-0) • Not so 'new-look' as advertised in upset of Utah: Falcons ran for 334 yards, led by QB Shaun Carney. Sounds like the option to me.
8. East Carolina (1-1) • Defense looks less formidable after V-Tech's implosion at LSU and North Carolina's success, but the offense looks like a threat with Pinkney at the controls.
9. Ohio U. of Ohio (2-0) • Delicious snacky-time against I-AA Gardner-Webb and UL-Lafayette of the aforementioned winless Sun Belt. Preparing for dismantling or slow suffocation at best this weekend at Virginia Tech.
10. UNLV (1-1) • Briefly moves into the poll for leading Wisconsin with less than five minutes to go, the "best loss" among the competition here. Everything indicates that was a fluke, including the seven-point win over awful Utah State in the opener, so the Rebels shouldn't hang around for long.
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Honorable Mention: Tulsa (1-0) is the only unbeaten mid-major not on the list, but the Hurricane had last week off after beating mighty UL-Monroe in the opener, which seems worse than losing to the current Big Ten favorite at the last minute. Southern Miss played okay at Tennessee before it got away in the second half, but after a worthless bludgeoning of UT-Martin to open, that's trumped by Vegas, too.

Old dogs do not necessarily need to learn new tricks.
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Coming Up
Optimism in the week ahead.
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Best Game(s): A pair of defining inter-conference games out West - Wyoming at Boise State and BYU at Tulsa - are rife with "prove it" connotations for would-be upstarts Wyoming and Tulsa and worthy opportunities for the favored Broncos and Cougars to get back on track after having the dollar signs floating around in their dreams replaced by coffee-stained Las Vegas Bowl tickets last week. A loss sets neither team back in its conference but could cripple either's notions of separation from the pack.
Honorable Mention: Southern Miss was humiliated by losing to East Carolina at home last year and visits and apparently stronger ECU with the early C-USA East lead at stake.

Most Realistic Upset: Hawaii's margin of victory tends to shrink and sometimes disappear when it goes on the road, which makes its trip to Vegas a dangerous one after the Rebels' near-hit against Wisconsin. The Rainbows or Warriors or whatever will certainly top 20 points, but if Louisiana Tech can run alongside the UH offense, so can UNLV.

Most Unrealistic Upset: It's hard to equate preseason expectations with Utah's very lackluster 0-2 start, and easy to look at UCLA's trip to Salt Lake City as a "trap" game for the Bruins between a turnover-aided win over BYU and the start of Pac Ten play against Washington. Don't buy it: for its reputation of inconsistent mediocrity, L.A. appears to have moved past its "weird loss to the Mountain West" phase since the `04 Las Vegas Bowl. Besides, Utah is just bad, especially without quarterback Brian Johnson, who is still missing from the lineup with a separated shoulder.

Most Inevitably Gruesome Blowout: Utah State and Middle Tennessee aren't going to have much fun at Oklahoma and LSU, respectively, but both of those heavies should at least be fat and happy coming off shockingly lopsided home blowouts in games that were suppposed to be somewhat close. Louisiana Tech, on the other hand, goes to play a California team that limped to a win last week over Colorado State and should come out leaner and meaner. The Bulldogs put up a fight against Hawaii, but Cal's defense is not Hawaii's, and La Tech's is still one of the absolute worst in the nation until further notice. Do not expect that notice to come against Longshore, Jackson, et al.

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* - That clip was actually from the 2006 game in Murfreesboro. So sue me.