Four observations from the college football weekend:
UNSUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR
You might not have heard much about UTEP’s Aaron Jones because his team won only three games this season.
But Jones is a winner. And the redshirt junior running back received some overdue national recognition after gaining 301 yards on Saturday in a 52-24 victory against North Texas.
Jones, a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back, earned honorable mention from the College Football Performance Award for National Performer of the Week.
He’s also our choice for Unsung Player of the Year after setting the single-season school record with 1,773 rushing yards. That’s good for first in Conference USA and No. 3 in FBS this season. It’s also fifth in C-USA history.
Jones was also the eighth C-USA player to surpass 300 yards rushing in a game. His 301 yards were second in school history behind Fred Rendt (326 against New Mexico State in 1948).
The performance capped a remarkable comeback by Jones, who led UTEP in rushing as a freshman (811 yards) and a sophomore (1,321 yards). He was off to an excellent start last season, but tore ligaments in his ankle in the second game and missed the remainder of the season following surgery.
Jones opened this season with 249 yards against New Mexico State and 123 yards in less than three quarters against Texas.
He appeared to finish his season with a 3-yard touchdown run Saturday that gave the Miners a 52-17 lead. That put him at 296 yards for the game.
But, in perhaps the greatest tribute to Jones, his teammates wanted more for him.
“They said he needed four more yards to get 300 and collectively, as a team, we rallied around that,” senior tight end Hayden Plinke told the El Paso Times. “We were all pumped for him.”
Jones returned for one more carry and gained five yards to top 300. Then he was pulled to a standing ovation with 6:30 remaining in the game.
“They take a lot of pride in Aaron Jones and getting him the single-season rushing record in a big way,” said Miners head coach Sean Kugler. “He got 301 yards. They were excited about that.”
The next big run for Jones might be to the NFL.
“Kids do have the ability to ask for a draft grade without losing their eligibility, and I’d encourage Aaron to do that,” Kugler said.
“If he has a first-round draft grade, I’d tell him to come out. If it comes back and it’s not that high, we’ll have a discussion.”
Last week, NFL kickers missed a record 12 extra-point attempts. On Saturday, Canon Rooker nearly made up for that all by himself.
Middle Tennessee’s kicker made all 11 extra points in a wild 77-56 victory against Florida Atlantic.
Rooker’s 11 extra points were two short of the NCAA record shared by Houston’s Terry Leiweke against Tulsa in 1968 and Fresno State’s Derek Mahoney against New Mexico in 1991.
It wasn’t even the best game by an MTSU kicker. In 2015, Cody Clark scored 13 points on 11 kicks — 10 extra points and a field goal — in a 73-14 victory against Charlotte.
But the 77 points did set an MTSU record. The wild part started after the Blue Raiders lost redshirt freshman quarterback John Urzua in the first quarter to a concussion.
They switched to a Wildcat formation with running back I’Tavius Mathers and wide receivers Richie James and Dennis Andrews in the backfield. The result was 495 yards rushing by an offense renowned for passing led, in part, by receivers.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know John was hurt; I just thought [offensive coordinator] Tony Franklin wanted to run the Wildcat,” Mathers said. “I think we did a pretty good job of running it for most of the game.”
Mathers gained 213 yards with three touchdowns while James ran for 207 yards and scored four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving). It was the sixth time in NCAA Division I history that two players from the same team rushed for 200 yards in the same game.
James also caught four passes for 120 yards, making him the sixth player in Division I history with 200 yards rushing and 100 yards passing in the same game.
“I’m just glad we got a win,” James said. “You have two receivers at quarterback and we play like that? That was the first thing I thought about.”
Here’s the real kicker: Despite the 133 points, it wasn’t even Saturday’s highest-scoring game.
That was Pitt beating Syracuse 76-61, setting the FBS record for most points in a game.
Meanwhile, Navy put up 75 points against SMU.
But MTSU and its kicker topped them both.
… the Group of Five can do better. Check out these five milestones:
• Western Michigan has two victories against Big Ten opponents this season. That’s as good as three Big Ten teams combined — Michigan State (1-8), Purdue (1-8) and Rutgers (0-9). Not surprisingly, Broncos head coach P.J. Fleck has been mentioned as a candidate to replace Darrell Hazell at Purdue. Fleck led the Broncos from a 1-11 record in his first season to 12-0 this season, his fourth.
• East Carolina’s Zay Jones led the nation in receiving this season with 158 catches for 1,746 yards. He also became the FBS career leader in receptions (399).
• Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, who led the MAC in receiving this season, became the FBS career leader in receiving yards (5,061). He also has 50 career TD receptions.
• Meanwhile, three of the top seven passers in FBS are from the G-5: Toledo’s Logan Woodside (3,882), Louisiana Tech’s Ryan Higgins (3,706) and Western Kentucky’s Mike White (3,606). Higgins passed for 454 yards and five touchdowns in leading the Bulldogs to a 55-52 victory against White’s Hilltoppers on Oct. 6. The rematch is Saturday at WKU for the Conference USA championship.
• Six of the top 10 rushers in FBS are from the G-5: UTEP’s Aaron Jones, Wyoming’s Brian Hill (1,674 yards), Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols (1,663 yards), Tulsa’s James Flanders (1,529) and Middle Tennessee’s I’Tavius Mathers (1,504).
AROUND THE COACHING CAROUSEL
Tom Herman said he thought Houston would join the Big 12. The Cougars didn’t when the conference voted against expansion.
So Herman left to join the Big 12 on Saturday. He was hired by Texas, which fired Charlie Strong after three seasons and a 16-21 record.
Now, the Houston job becomes what should be the hottest commodity in college football, even with Baylor and Purdue in search of replacements.
The Cougars have been a stepping stone to the Power Five for three of their past four permanent head coaches.
Art Briles left for Baylor after going 34–28 from 2003–07; Kevin Sumlin went to Texas A&M after compiling a 35–17 record from 2008–11; and now Herman moves on to Texas after a 22-4 record in two seasons, including 6-0 against teams ranked in the Top 25.
Also in the market for a new coach is Florida Atlantic, which fired Charlie Partridge on Sunday following a 77-56 loss to Middle Tennessee and a third consecutive 3-9 season.
And Nevada dismissed Brian Polian on Monday after a 5-7 season. Polian was 23-27 in four yesrs, including a 28-23 victory against Colorado State in last year’s inaugural NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl on ASN.
Polian also scored the 2015 quote of the year when recalling his time as a graduate assistant on Nick Saban’s Michigan State coaching staff in 1997.
“Those 11 months,” he said, “were the longest 10 years of my life. … I was scared to death of Coach Saban — and he liked me.”