HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- One of Conference USA's two marquee matches today pits Marshall's 11th and 12th opponents, as the calendar flips to November and the games get more serious.
Houston (4-4, 3-1) visits East Carolina (5-4, 4-1), which will try to become the league's third team to become bowl-eligible. A win also keeps the Pirates alone in second place in the East Division and keeps them within striking distance of Central Florida. UCF owns the tiebreaker.
More important, ECU will try to get off the deck after a 56-28 torpedoing by Navy. As has often been the case in the Ruffin McNeil era, the defense failed to carry its weight.
"I saw many players not attacking the initial blocker on the perimeter and in general having trouble getting off of blocks to make tackles," said the third-year coach. "We had great effort and guys were running and chasing after the ball, but in an inefficient manner."
Houston recovered from its nine-turnover 72-42 loss at Southern Methodist to down Texas-El Paso 45-35 last week. The game wasn't that close, at the Miners scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter after falling behind 45-14. Charles Sims, the league's leading scorer with 12.0 points per game, scored three rushing touchdowns.
One could argue the stakes are higher for the Cougars, who play West Division leader Tulsa (7-1, 5-0) next week. A win keeps Houston a game behind the Golden Hurricane, but a loss makes the road to six wins iffy, with Marshall and a suddenly explosive Tulane team in the finishing stretch.
East Carolina gets a week off after today, then travels to Tulane and hosts Marshall.
SMU (4-4, 3-1) is the next team to take a swing at UCF (6-2, 4-0) in the other key matchup. SMU also has Tulsa left in the Nov. 24 season finale, while UCF wants to maintain its iron grip on the East.
There wasn't much negative in the Knights' post-mortem of their 54-17 pummeling of Marshall (3-5, 2-2) last week.
"I thought we played as near a 60-minute game as we could on offense, defense and special teams," said coach George O'Leary.
If SMU can't beat UCF or Tulsa, it still has a pretty good shot at a bowl. The Mustangs' other foes are Rice and Southern Mississippi.
Tulsa plays the league's final nonconference game, traveling to Arkansas. That kicks off the Hurricane's difficult November, which includes a trip to Houston, a home game against UCF and the road game against SMU. C-USA's nonconference record against FBS schools is 7-34.
This week's bowl-elimination matchup pits Rice (3-6, 1-4) against Tulane (3-6, 2-2). The loser becomes the fifth team knocked out of contention. The Green Wave's Ryan Griffin threw for a school-record 466 yards against Alabama-Birmingham last week, with five touchdowns.
And finally, the resistible force meets the movable object when UAB (1-7, 0-4) travels to Southern Miss (0-8, 0-4). The loser will be the only team without a conference win.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.