Here are five small-school players whose performances stood out last week:
Marquez Stevenson, WR, Houston
Stats vs. Tulane: 5 receptions, 118 yards (23.6 yards per catch), 1 TD, 1 kick return for 97 yards, 1 TD
The Cougars finally were able to hit the field for the first time in 2020 last week, and this game did not disappoint. After being down 24-7, Houston was able to outscore Tulane 42-7 the rest of the way to pick up a nice 49-31 win. Houston had a plethora of big plays on offense and special teams that helped them make up for some early-game turnovers that led to defensive scores for Tulane. Two of these plays were due to the elite speed of senior wideout Marquez Stevenson. Stevenson’s first score of the game came on a 97-yard kickoff return when he followed a series of blocks and weaved his way in between defenders to give Houston the lead for good. His second score solidified the Houston lead as the 6-0, 190-pounder was able to blow past defenders to catch a 41-yard touchdown strike. Stevenson’s speed opened a lot of holes in the Tulane defense that Houston was able to expose as well as demanding tighter coverage on him that got other receivers open. We’ll see if Stevenson can continue to be a boon for this Houston offense this season and potentially get some looks from NFL teams down the line.
Brenden Knox, RB, Marshall
Stats vs. Western Kentucky: 15 rushes for 107 yards, 7.1 yards per carry, 3 TDs, long of 45 yards
Junior running back Brenden Knox gashed the Hilltopper defense for over 100 yards and three touchdowns. The Thundering Herd ran for 181 yards against Western Kentucky, and Knox accounted for approximately 59.1% of those yards. Much of the reason why Marshall was able to get out to an early lead was due to the play of Knox. Marshall went up 28-0 against the Hilltoppers, and Knox accounted for three of the Thundering Herd’s first-half touchdowns. In fact, on the second play of the game, Knox burst through the hole at the line of scrimmage and powered through the defender to score a 45-yard touchdown. In the half, Knox already had 10 carries for 82 yards and three touchdowns. Knox was even able to move into Marshall’s top 10 in career rushing yards with his standout play, so this was definitely a special day for the 6-0, 223-pounder out of Columbus, Ohio. And by the way — it was his birthday. Marshall is off to a 3-0 start and looks like one of the teams to beat in the C-USA in 2020.
Justin Rice, LB, Arkansas State
Stats vs. Central Arkansas: 12 total tackles, 12 solo tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 1 QB hurry
After Arkansas State’s upset win over Kansas State, there have not been many positives to write about for this team. They were overmatched by Coastal Carolina in Week 5, but that did not stop them from rebounding in a gigantic way against Central Arkansas. The defense did a much better job in rushing the passer and stopping the ground game. The pass defense can still use some work, but the effort by the Red Wolves’ defense was good enough to get a 23-point victory over Central Arkansas. Much of this big rebound on the defensive side came from former Fresno State Bulldog linebacker Justin Rice. Entering this matchup, Rice had only compiled 14 total tackles and one sack through three games. Well, he managed to nearly have that same amount of tackles in one game as he finished with 12 tackles, and Rice had three times the amount of sacks he did all season in a single game. The 6-2, 225-pound linebacker’s performance was so good that he was able to win Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors for Week 6. This moment marks the first time that an Arkansas State player has won this honor. It was impressive seeing how Rice was able to bluff dropping back into coverage so well before going after the QB on a delayed blitz. This really confused the Central Arkansas offensive line, and it ensured that their passing game was off just a little bit throughout the game.
Jaelon Darden, WR, North Texas
Stats vs. Charlotte: 13 receptions, 244 yards, 3 TDs, 18.8 yards per catch, long of 45 yards
After defeating Houston Baptist in its season opener, North Texas has dropped three straight games; however, this does not mean there haven’t been any standouts. Jaelon Darden has been a touchdown machine for the Mean Green as he already has nine touchdown receptions through four games to go with 485 receiving yards. Darden’s season has been so incredible so far that he is currently tied for first in the FBS in receptions with 36, first in the FBS in receiving yards with 485, and first in touchdowns in the FBS with nine. The 5–9, 174-pound senior has only had one game this season where he hasn’t caught two or more touchdown passes. In fact, Darden has caught three touchdown passes in two of the four games North Texas has played this season. He has really been a huge security blanket for QB Austin Aune. Darden is already close to shattering his receiving numbers from last season as well. He had 736 yards on 76 receptions and 12 touchdown catches in 2019. In this game, Darden used his speed to blaze past Charlotte defenders, but he was also very good at creating separation with a very subtle use of his hands. Furthermore, Darden also showed off his elusiveness as his third touchdown required him to juke a defensive back near the sideline and beat another DB to the pylon.
Sean-Thomas Faulkner, S, The Citadel
Stats vs. Army: 16 total tackles, 9 solo tackles, 7 assisted tackles, 1 tackle for loss
The Citadel nearly pulled off a major upset, playing very tough against an Army squad that was ranked no. 22 in the nation just a few weeks ago. The Citadel had three players stand out on defense in the form of Anthony Britton Jr, Jay Harris and Sean-Thomas Faulkner. These three players were integral in preventing Army from capitalizing on three turnovers by the Bulldogs. When playing against Army, or any of the FBS military teams, a defense needs to be prepared to stop the triple-option, the go-to offense for Army, Navy, and Air Force. Army is currently averaging 311 rushing yards per game, and this number certainly could have been higher had the Bulldogs simply rolled over like they were supposed to. Army was only able to rush for 153 yards on 50 rushes (3.06 yards per carry). Faulkner, a 5-11, 181-pound junior, played a huge part in helping The Citadel nearly pull off the upset. Faulkner had 16 tackles against Army, the FCS high for tackles in a single game this season. Playing safety is especially important against triple-option teams as you need to have sure tacklers in the last line of defense to stop any big runs. The Citadel was able to play Faulkner in the box as well, which led to the Bulldogs being able to get a huge stop on fourth down early in the game due to Faulkner tripping up an Army running back. Despite not getting the win, Faulkner and the Bulldogs proved that they have made massive strides throughout the course of its four-game season.