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AAC Notebook: Poll voters notice AAC squads

The Sports Xchange

October 11, 2015 at 8:17 pm.

Oct 8, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; University of Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) prepares to throw against the Southern Methodist University Mustangs in the first quarter at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 8, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; University of Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) prepares to throw against the Southern Methodist University Mustangs in the first quarter at TDECU Stadium. Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

While the lone American Athletic Conference team that entered the weekend in the Top 25 got to watch everyone else play on television, the Memphis Tigers got some company in the rankings by the time this week’s games ended.

The Tigers moved from No. 25 to No. 22 in the coaches’ poll by virtue of having a bye week during a time that other ranked teams were losing. They remain unranked in the AP poll, but the AAC does now have a team among the Top 25 as determined by the writers.

Houston entered the AP poll at No. 24 following its 49-28 victory over SMU. The Cougars improved to 5-0 by scoring seven rushing touchdowns, one in each of the team’s red zone trips. It marked the third win of the season by 21 or more points.

Temple isn’t ranked yet, but the Owls are on the doorstep. Temple’s 96 votes in the AP poll leave it as the most popular unranked team, while Houston and Temple are the unranked teams with the most votes in the coaches poll.

Owls coach Matt Rhule isn’t paying much attention to the polls — yet.

“I have no idea,” Rhule said, when asked if the Owls deserved to be ranked. “I don’t see enough football from everybody else. I saw Houston the other night and I’m thankful we’re not playing them — they looked really good. All I care about is how we finish the year. I want to finish the year in the Top 25, make no mistake about that, but right now I don’t care.”

Of note for the conference is that none of these teams are moving up in the rankings because of huge wins over ranked teams. Temple’s biggest win is against Penn State, while Houston knocked off Louisville. Both are name programs, but neither is having a particularly good year and neither team has sniffed the Top 25. The biggest win for Memphis, as far as marquee names go, is a victory over Big 12 cellar-dweller Kansas.

That belies some of the concerns when the AAC formed that its teams would be relegated to the equivalent of the college football minor leagues. Both the writers and the coaches seem to be noticing how the top of the league is faring, and the Tigers, Cougars and Owls will have ample opportunities to boost their profiles in the coming weeks.

In particular, the Tigers will get their chance at a marquee win this week when they face Ole Miss. The 5-1 Rebels already have a victory over Alabama, and knocking off an SEC rival would leave Memphis with a legitimate chance of a marquee bowl game if it can run the table in conference play.

CENTRAL FLORIDA (0-6, 0-2)

Game: Connecticut 40, Central Florida 13. A bad Central Florida season continues to get worse, as the Knights slogged through a listless loss at home. Central Florida didn’t reach the end zone until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, at which point the game had long since been decided.

Takeaway: Justin Holman returned after missing three games with a broken finger, and completed 27 of his 50 pass attempts for 255 yards. He also threw three interceptions, but the coaching staff noted that his stats were hurt by the several drops from UCF receivers.

Next: at Temple, Oct. 17.

CINCINNATI (3-2, 0-2)

Game: Bye

Next: at Brigham Young, Oct. 16.

CONNECTICUT (3-3, 1-1)

Game: Connecticut 40, Central Florida 13. UConn dominated from start to finish to end a three-game losing streak with an impressive performance on the road. Quarterback Brian Shirreffs finished 256 passing yards, and both threw and ran for a touchdown.

Takeaway: The Huskies defense forced four turnovers, and now has seven over the past two games. It also kept the Knights out of the end zone until UCF finally reached paydirt with1:38 to play.

Next: vs. South Florida, Oct. 17.

EAST CAROLINA (3-3, 1-1)

Game: Brigham Young 45, East Carolina 38. The Pirates came back from 17 down to tie the Cougars with 4:01 to play, but BYU scored with 19 seconds to play to sneak away with the victory. East Carolina finished with 518 yards of total offense.

Takeaway: In a reversal of the past two weeks, it was Blake Kemp who came off the bench to provide a spark in relief of James Summers, rather than the other way around. Kemp threw for 371 yards in a little over two quarters.

Next: vs. Tulsa, Oct. 17.

HOUSTON (5-0, 2-0)

Game: Houston 49, Southern Methodist 28. The Cougars ran over the Mustangs to remain perfect under first-year head coach Tim Herman. All seven Houston rushing touchdowns came on the ground, with Greg Ward Jr. scoring four and Kenneth Farrow three.

Takeaway: While the running game continues to shine, Houston’s defense also played its part in keeping the team undefeated. SMU was held to 89 yards and seven points after halftime.

Next: at Tulane, Oct. 16.

MEMPHIS (5-0, 2-0)

Game: Bye

Next: vs. Ole Miss, Oct. 17.

NAVY (5-1, 2-0)

Game: Notre Dame 41, Navy 24. Navy tied the No. 15 Fighting Irish at 21 in the second quarter, but couldn’t muster any more offense and fell on the road. Keenan Reynolds injured his leg in the second quarter and couldn’t finish the game.

Takeaway: Reynolds expects to play next week, but did not score a rushing touchdown against Notre Dame for the second year in a row. The Midshipmen showed a lot of fight against the Irish, but turned the ball over three times on Saturday after doing so just once through the season’s first five games.

Next: vs. Tulane, Oct. 24.

SOUTHERN METHODIST (1-5, 0-2)

Game: Houston 49, Southern Methodist 28. Continuing a familiar pattern, the Mustangs started strong but couldn’t sustain the effort for 60 minutes and fell to the Cougars. SMU fumbled three times and allowed seven rushing touchdowns.

Takeaway: SMU led 21-14 with the ball late in the first half, but turnovers on the next two possessions led to two Houston scores and a 28-21 halftime deficit. The Mustangs just mustered 89 yards of offense and a single touchdown after the break.

Next: at South Florida, Oct. 24.

SOUTH FLORIDA (2-3, 0-1)

Game: South Florida 45, Syracuse 23. The Bulls offense looked explosive in a blowout of Syracuse, providing South Florida with the biggest win in the three-year Willie Taggart era. Quarterback Quinton Flowers threw for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and ran for 55 yards and another score.

Takeaway: The 45 points were the most for South Florida against a non-FCS team since a 54-24 victory over UTEP in 2011. The offense finished with 535 total yards, the best performance against an FBS team since it rolled up 552 against Syracuse in 2012.

Next: at Connecticut, Oct. 17.

TEMPLE (5-0, 2-0)

Game: Temple 49, Tulane 10. The Owls rebounded from a slow start to dominate the Green Wave on Homecoming. P.J. Walker threw for 183 yards and a pair of touchdowns before being replaced in the third quarter, as coach Matt Rhule emptied his bench.

Takeaway: Rhule was happy that the blowout victory allowed his scout teamers the chance to get into the game before the large Homecoming crowd. “That was a great win for us in that every kid that was not injured or redshirted got into the game,” Rhule said. “That’s really important to our team.”

Next: vs. Central Florida, Oct. 17.

TULANE (2-3, 1-1)

Game: Temple 49, Tulane 10. The Green Wave took an early 10-7 lead, but it was all Temple after that in a road loss. Tulane finished with just 110 yards of total offense.

Takeaway: Tulane had nearly as many penalty yards — 102 — as it did yards of total offense. “We played undisciplined today,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “Once we started getting whipped, that’s when we started getting uncharacteristically undisciplined and that’s on me.”

Next: vs. Houston, Oct. 16.

TULSA (3-2, 0-1)

Game: Tulsa 34, Louisiana-Monroe 24. Tulsa trailed 24-20 after three quarters, but two late scores gave the Hurricane the victory at home. Dane Evans threw for 341 yards and a pair of scores.

Takeaway: The Hurricane allowed 17 consecutive points to give up the lead, but scored twice in 2:25 to regain control. It overcame a sluggish second-half performance by the defense, which allowed ULM to score on its first three possessions after intermission.

Next: at East Carolina, Oct. 17.

NOTES, QUOTES

–Every week, Central Florida seems to find a new layer beneath rock bottom. But it will be hard to top Saturday’s 40-13 loss to Connecticut as the symbol of how far the Knights and coach George O’Leary have fallen in 2016.

Central Florida is winless halfway through the season, and the Orlando Sentinel reported that a plane carrying a “Time to Step Down O’Leary” banner flew over the stadium prior to kickoff. A team that won the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago could well wind up not winning a game all year.

“Obviously, [I am] very disappointed on the outcome and the continued mistakes we make offensively and defensively,” O’Leary said. “Just too many easy scores and too many dumb mistakes out there in all phases. I told the team after the game that I didn’t have too many positive comments to say to them and I will deal with it tomorrow after I watch the tape and make sure I saw what I saw.”

For O’Leary, the blame for the team’s struggles seems to boil down to a lack of experience. The Knights were docked scholarships starting in following impermissible phone calls to recruits that took place from 2007 to 2009.

“I think the big issue is the loss of 15 scholarships over the last three years,” O’Leary said. “I am not alibiing, that’s just where our depth is. We don’t have those guys, so right away we are playing younger kids, who probably aren’t ready to play from a strength or speed standpoint. You can’t make the mistakes we are making and win games.”

It’s an unfamiliar position for the Knight players to be faring so poorly in the standings. Now, they have to focus on digging themselves out of a very large hole.

“It’s hard,” defensive lineman Jamiyus Pittman said. “We’ve got to keep pushing; we know it’s on us. We can’t blame anybody but ourselves. We are not doing what we are supposed to be doing and it’s time to do it.”

–In 2012, South Florida took a 23-3 lead on Syracuse, but couldn’t hold it. The Orange earned a 37-36 win and helped define the Bulls as a team that wasn’t quite good enough or tough enough to get to the next level.

The Bulls took a 24-3 lead in the third quarter against the Orange on Saturday, then saw the Orange score twice in less than two minutes to cut the margin to seven. Marlon Mack answered with a rushing touchdown to put the Bulls back up by two scores. When Syracuse again cut the margin to seven at the start of the fourth quarter, USF responded with a 14-play, 82-yard drive to go up 38-24 and end the last Orange threat.

“I’m so proud of our young pups,” coach Willie Taggart said. “I thought our young pups took a big step in our program, and they’re starting to grow up. It was really good to see those guys go out and expect success, not hope for success tonight. They were fired up and they were locked into the game.”

South Florida was coming off a three-game losing streak, capped off by a 24-17 defeat at Memphis. However, Taggart credited that narrow loss with propelling his team to victory against the Orange.

“We just kept talking about finishing. That’s all we spoke about this week,” Taggart said. “I told our football team that I was certain that if we just finish everything we do we would win the ball game. If we finish every run, if we finish every block, if we finish every throw and if we finish every catch than we would win this football game. And our guys really finished.”

–Navy fell at Notre Dame 41-24 on Saturday, but nearly suffered a loss far more costly.

Quarterback Keenan Reynolds fell awkwardly after being tackled in the first half. He left the game, and while he returned in the second half he was less effective and got taken out late in the contest.

But coach Ken Niumatalolo says his quarterback isn’t expected to miss any time.

“He’ll be fine. Just got kicked in the shin,” Niumatalolo said. “Just get some rest next week and he’ll be back.”

The Midshipmen have a well-timed bye week, and don’t take the field again until an Oct. 24 date with Tulane. Reynolds said he would “absolutely” be ready for the Green Wave.

“I mean it’s sore, but luckily it’s only a pull,” Reynolds said. “I’ve just got to rehab it. I’ll be fine.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “We are going to play a six-game season because that’s what is left. At the end of the six games, we are going to figure out where we are at, and then we are going to go to the next step. We are not changing who we are. I am not changing what this culture is about and what we are building here. It’s a process. I ask our fans: don’t quit on us. I ask our students not to quit on us. These guys are going to battle hard. I am going to get this program turned around. I promise you: I am going to get it turned around. I’m a fighter, these guys are fighters, and the staff are fighters. We are going to continue to coach and execute our plans. We are going to go back to work, and that is all you can do.” — SMU coach Chad Morris, after his team fell to 1-5 with a loss to Houston.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 6 IN THE AAC:

1. Tulsa ran 107 plays against Louisiana-Monroe, setting a school record. The Hurricane are getting the hang of Philip Montgomery’s fast-paced offense, which is bad news for AAC defenses.

2. Blake Kemp threw for 371 yards in a little over a half in the East Carolina loss to BYU, coming off the bench to relieve James Summers. Coach Ruffin McNeil has mastered the art of turning to the backup. Now, the starter needs to get the job done.

3. Connecticut not only beat Central Florida, it won itself some hardware. The Huskies won the “Conflict Trophy,” which the school set up to manufacture a rivalry with the league’s southernmost school.

4. South Florida gave its fans a rare thrill — a Homecoming win. The victory over Syracuse marked the first time since 2009 that the Bulls managed a victory on Homecoming weekend.

5. Temple quarterback P.J. Walker has been playing with a separated shoulder since the Penn State game. He hasn’t missed any time because of the injury, but the team has been giving less designed running plays as a result.