Conference championship week brought many surprises and some great games. The Group of Five championship games did not disappoint, and they gave us many performances to write home about. As bowl season begins, these championship games gave college football fans a sneak preview of what to expect throughout the holiday season. Here are five small-school players who stole the spotlight in Week 16:
Trea Shropshire, WR, UAB
Stats vs. Marshall: 5 REC, 180 YDS, 36 Y/R, 1 TD, LONG OF 71 YDS
UAB was not given a shot in most pundits’ eyes to upset the heavily favored Marshall Thundering Herd. However, the Blazers were able to get the job done in a stunning 22-13 upset in Week 16. One of the biggest plays of the game came from wideout Trea Shropshire. The 6-3, 190-pound junior was able to gash the Thundering Herd’s secondary for a 71-yard touchdown after making an incredible adjustment to a ball on what appeared to be a miscommunication between him and QB Tyler Johnston III in response to a huge touchdown pass from Marshall. UAB has been known for its great running game this season, but it was the passing game that stole the spotlight thanks to the plays Shropshire was able to make on the receiving end all night long en route to 5 receptions for 180 yards and a score. Besides his incredible touchdown catch, Shropshire was continually able to get open in order to help open up everything for UAB on offense. The junior was able to create separation in order to gain huge first downs while showing off great use of his height. On a night where UAB needed everything to go right to pull off the upset, Shropshire made sure to stand out in one of the biggest games of his career.
Treyvon Reeves, LB, Tulsa
Stats vs. Cincinnati: 9 TOTAL TACKLES, 7 SOLO, 1 SACK, 2 TFLS
This was supposed to be the second of two games that Tulsa was going to play against Cincinnati this season until COVID-19 had a say in canceling the first matchup. No matter, this game lived up to the hype of conference championship week as Tulsa was able to take Cincinnati down to the wire in a 27-24 loss. Tulsa kept it close thanks to a huge outing from its defense, particularly senior linebacker Treyvon Reeves. The 6-2, 224-pound linebacker was instrumental in helping the Golden Hurricane contain an explosive Cincinnati offense. Reeves totaled 9 tackles on the night to go with a sack and 2 tackles for loss, helping Tulsa’s defense to not get gashed by dynamic Bearcat QB Desmond Ridder. The pressure that Reeves was able to get on Ridder was a huge reason why Tulsa was able to force a critical turnover after trailing 10-3 early in this one. Reeves was explosive on the edge, allowing defensive coordinator Joseph Gillespie to bring pressure on third down. Reeves’ lone sack of the game helped to keep Cincinnati from regaining the lead, as it forced the Bearcats to punt when they had a promising drive going. Reeves terrorized Cincinnati’s offensive line all night long, part of the reason for Tulsa’s defense not getting exposed by Cincinnati’s great offense. Although the Golden Hurricanes came up just short, it was not because of what Reeves was able to accomplish on this night.
Myjai Sanders, DE, Cincinnati
Stats vs. Tulsa: 3 TOTAL TACKLES, 2 SOLO, 2 SACKS, 2 TFLS, 1 PD, 1 QB HURRY
On the winning side of this 27-24 wild affair in Week 16, Myjai Sanders was the epitome of making the most of your opportunities. The 6-5, 258-pound junior from Jacksonville may have had only three total tackles on the night, but he was a pain for Tulsa’s offensive line to stop throughout the course of this game as he compiled 2 sacks, 2 tackles for losses, a pass breakup, and a QB hurry to ensure that Tulsa’s offense was always uncomfortable. Sanders was instrumental in closing various holes in order to make Golden Hurricane QB Zach Smith unable to make his best throws. Sanders’ lone QB hurry of the game forced Smith into making a poor throw decision that led to Cincinnati securing a critical interception. The junior was able to force Tulsa’s right tackle into Smith, forcing the QB to run into another defensive lineman and make the wrong read under duress. Not all of Sanders’ accomplishments in this game appeared in the box score, but his efforts were essential for Cincinnati to secure its first-ever AAC Conference Championship while also obtaining the Group of Five’s bid for a New Year’s Six Bowl. Sanders will continue to be an even bigger part of this defense moving forward if this game is any indication of what is to come for the promising defensive end.
Nick Starkel, QB, San Jose State
Stats vs. Boise State: 32/52 C/ATT, 453 YDS, 8.7 Y/A, 3 TDS, 0 INTS, 84.4 QBR
Nick Starkel becomes the very first player to appear twice in Small-School College Stars of the Week this season thanks to his complete domination of an incredible Boise State defense in Week 16. The journeyman QB has finally found a great spot for his talent, helping the Spartans complete an undefeated season with an MWC championship. Starkel, a 6-3, 214-pound senior from Argyle, Texas, was able to torch the Broncos’ defense to the tune of 453 yards and 3 touchdowns on 32 of 52 passing to secure a 34-20 victory for the Spartans. This battle-tested QB was able to make any type of play to get San Jose State down the field and score. Whether it was connecting on deep passes with receivers Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker or making incredible throws on the move, Starkel was unstoppable in this one, particularly in the second half. Boise State had no answer for San Jose State’s elite passing game as Starkel continued to prove why he is one of the most improved signal callers in the nation in 2020.
Jimmy Daw, LB, Ball State
Stats vs. Buffalo: 7 TOTAL TACKLES, 5 SOLO, 1 SACK, 3 TFLS, 1 FORCED FUMBLE
Ball State had a huge task in the MAC Championship Game: stop Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson, who has been having an incredible season despite the MAC only starting play in late October. In order to win this game, Ball State could not allow Patterson to continue putting up video game numbers and controlling the tempo of the game. Unfortunately for Patterson, he got injured in this one, but Buffalo still had a very capable running game with backup Kevin Marks Jr. Ball State had to force Buffalo to pass it a lot in order to come out with a tough 38-28 victory over the Bulls. Buffalo has not been accustomed to passing a lot, and it showed as QB Kyle Vantrease was pressured almost every time he stepped back to pass. One of those pressures from Ball State’s aggressive defense created one of the biggest plays of the game courtesy of linebacker Jimmy Daw. The 6-3, 239-pound junior was able to record his first sack of the 2020 campaign while also knocking the ball loose on the same play, leading to Ball State scoring a critical defensive touchdown. Daw was all over the field in this one, compiling 3 tackles for loss and 7 total tackles overall. Thanks to these efforts by Daw and the rest of the Cardinals’ defense, Ball State was able to hold Buffalo to its lowest scoring output this season.
Sources: ESPN, YouTube