6:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Marshall -8.5
Conference Champions clash in Southern Florida, as the Marshall Thundering Herd face off against the Northern Illinois Huskies in the Boca Raton Bowl. Today’s meeting marks the only matchup to feature Conference Champions not amongst the New Year’s Six, which will of course have a little more riding on them. However, Marshall (12-1, in Conference USA) came very close to staking it’s claim as one of those twelve teams, nearly completing the first undefeated campaign since joining the ranks of Division One back in 1996. Doc Holiday’s charges stormed through the early part of the schedule, winning their first eleven games by an average margin of 28.5 points. Unfortunately, their dreams of crashing the College Football Playoff and placing the Committee under tons of pressure dissipated in the form of a epic 67-66 overtime loss against Western Kentucky. Between them there were a total of 1,446 yards of total offense and twenty touchdowns, thirteen of which came in the First Half alone. However, it was turnovers that ultimately did the Herd in, as Rakeem Cato threw four interceptions to spoil the seven touchdowns he also tossed. Marshall would bounce back the following week against Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA Championship Game, narrowly avoiding a second straight upset; trailing 23-16 early in the Fourth Quarter, the hosts scored ten unanswered points, culminating in a five-yard touchdown toss from Cato to Deon-Tay McManus to win the game 26-23. Holliday saw his team outgain their opponent by a whopping 161 yards, but another quartet of turnovers made the contest much closer than it was on paper.
For the majority of the 2014 campaign, Marshall has been a powerhouse on both sides of the ball, ranking in theTop Ten of the FBS in both offense and defense. Holliday has a veteran club that has put forth a balanced effort offensively, averaging 41.9 points on 563.4 total yards, including 287.8 through the air, and another 257.6 on the ground. The aforementioned Cato has been as prolific a Quarterback in the country, completing 58.5% of his attempts for 3,622 yards (8.7 yards/attempt), 37 touchdowns and thirteen interceptions. The Senior has also proven very adept at making defenses pay with his legs, racking up another 457 yards and six scores via the rush. Cato already owns virtually every major passing record, including 13,798 passing yards and 128 passing touchdowns. In fact, with one more touchdown toss he will have matched the NCAA record for most consecutive games with a tpassing score. He has done a tremendous job of spreading the ball to all of his weapons, evidenced by eight different targets logging at least sixteen catches and over 100 receiving yards. In fact, four of those players have netted over 400 yards receiving, led by the diminutive Tommy Shuler, who has amassed 953 yards and eight touchdowns on 74 receptions. With a good showing tonight, the forth-year Junior could post totals of 1,000 yards for the third consecutive season. Of course, just how effective this unit will be tonight will depend on how healthy Devon Johnson is. Before injuring his knee early on against the Hilltoppers. Johnson was dominant, rushing for 1,636 yards and sixteen touchdowns on 8.6 yards per carry. The 6-1, 243 lbs wrecking ball had spent his previous two season at Marshall as a Linebacker and a Tight End, before flourishing in the Backfield. He averaged 143.0 yards rushing though the first eleven outings, but in the final two contests against Western Kenucky and Lousiana Tech could muster 63 yards on just seven carries as he was visibly hampered by his ailing knee. Fortunately for the Herd, Holliday has options in the Backfiled in the event that the Nation’s sixth-leading rusher can’t go; Steward Butler rushed for 781 yards and seven scores on 7.7 yards per carry, while fellow Tailback Remi Watson scampered for another 521 yards and six touchdowns on 5.4 carries. Success on the ground will further augment one of the better non-Power Five defenses in the country; the Herd allowed a mere 19.4 points on 351.8 total yards, including 194.7 yards against the pass and another 157.2 yards versus the rush.
Meanwhile, another year and another Mid-American Title for the Huskies (11-2, 8-1 in MAC). Even with record-setting Quarterback Jordan Lynch graduating, Northern Illinois still managed to run to their third Conference Championship in four years, shellacking Bowling Green State in the MAC Title Game to the tune of 51-17. After an early stretch in which they lost two out of three games to the likes of Arkansas (52-14) and Central Michigan (34-17), Rod Carey and Co. Went on a roll, wining each of their final six regular season outings before thumping the Falcons at Ford Field in a derelict, Michigan. The Huskies jumped to a 20-10 Halftime lead before scoring twenty-four unanswered points in the Second Half, effectively ending the contest. On the night, they outgained their opponent 552 yards to 287, including 334-124 on the ground, with Cameron Stingily accounting for 116 of that total on fifteen carries and a pair of touchdowns. Quarterback Drew Hare completed 29-of-49 passes for 218 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while picking up another 60 yards and a score on a dozen carries. Safety Dechane Durante picked off a pair of passes, accounting for half of his team’s four takeaways.
As has been the case with the Huskies in past seasons, the key to their success has been their ability to a control a game on the ground with their rushing attack. Lynch, a Heisman Finalist in 2013, was obviously a big component of that over the past three years, but Carey has been impressed with the play of Hare, who has filled the sizable shoes of his predecessor. In his burst campaign as the starter, Hare has rushed for 850 years and eight touchdowns on 145 carries, racking up a healthy 5.9 yards per attempt. During their current seven-game winning streak, the Sophomore has rushed for 615 yards and six scores. Under his watch, the running game hasn’t missed much of a step at all, churning out 252.9 yards on 49.1 carries for an average of 5.8 yards per clip. Eight times this season have the Huskies rushed for at least 200 yards, going undefeated when passing that threshold. The aforementioned Stingily follow his 1,119-yard campaign in 2013 with a team-high 895 yards and thirteen scores on 5.1 yards per carry. The bullish Senior snapped a three-game stretch in which he was held under 100 yards, trampling Bowling Green for 116 in the MAC Championship Game. However, as effectively as they have pounded the ball between the tackles, the question remains whether or not Carey’s charges can stop their opponent from doing the very same thing that they are good at; this season Northern Illinois has allowed 158.3 yards against the rush on 4.1 yards per carry, which is not conducive to a ball control team like the Huskies. Even without Deron Johnson, Marshall has proven adept at hashing the opposition in the running game, which will likely decide the outcome of this Bowl.