The Conference USA East Division title will be decided in a showdown as the Marshall Thundering Herd (9-2, 6-1) travel to face the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (9-2, 7-0) Friday afternoon. Western Kentucky took the only matchup between the schools with a 67-66 overtime barnburner on November 28, 2014 that ended Marshall’s unbeaten season.
Marshall bounced back from their loss to Middle Tennessee by steamrolling Florida International 52-0 at home November 14; the Thundering Herd is coming off a bye. Western Kentucky has won three straight as they pulverized Florida International 63-7 on the road last Saturday. Kickoff from L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Kentucky is scheduled for 12:00 pm ET and will be televised on Fox Sports 1. Western Kentucky is currently a 10.5 point favorite in this contest.
Marshall jumped to a 21-0 lead after one quarter and didn’t look back as they stifled the Golden Panthers from wire to wire. The Thundering Herd outgained Florida International 463-209 and finished with 25 first downs while allowing 13; Marshall was edged in the time of possession battle by a 30:20 to 29:40 margin in the contest. Marshall turned the ball over twice in the game and forced just one takeaway; the team did score on a punt return in the opening quarter of the contest.
The Thundering Herd average 231.7 yards per game through the air (57th in the country) and 181.3 yards per game on the ground, which is 57th in the nation. Marshall averages 33 points per game, which is tied for 40th in scoring offense, while ranking 8th in the nation in scoring defense by giving up 15.6 points per game. Chase Litton (188 of 311, 2157 yards, 20 TD, 5 INT) has supplanted James Madison transfer Michael Birdsong (42 of 77, 353 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT) at quarterback; it remains to be seen if he’ll be the starter long term or not. Devon Johnson (84 carries, 555 yards, 5 TD) and Tony Pittman (64 carries, 327 yards, 3 TD) have done a decent job on the ground this season for the Thundering Herd. Hyleck Foster (79 carries, 402 yards, 2 TD) and Remi Watson (71 carries, 369 yards, 5 TD) are other backs that have gotten the job done for Marshall. Ryan Yurachek is third on the team with 37 grabs for 330 yards plus seven scores; Davonte Allen (team high 51 receptions, 661 yards, 5 TD), Deandre Reaves (45 receptions, 572 yards, 4 TD) and Deon-Tay McManus (29 grabs, 289 yards, TD) are capable secondary targets. Nick Smith has hit all 43 extra points and 15 of 20 field goal attempts on the season with a long of 42 yards. Amoreto Curraj hit his lone extra point attempt and is 0 for 2 on field goals.
Western Kentucky, much like Marshall did against Florida International, jumped to a 21-0 lead and kept the Golden Panthers in check. The Hilltoppers were up 35-0 at the half and didn’t allow Florida International to score until the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Western Kentucky outgained the Golden Panthers 477-168, finished with 23 first downs while allowing Florida International to pick up 10 and both teams committed three turnovers. The Hilltoppers scored on an interception return late in the second quarter as Wonderful Terry took a pick back 92 yards for a score.
The Hilltoppers boast the 6th most prolific passing offense in the country as they average 360.9 yards per game through the air, more than offsetting the fact that they are 90th in rushing offense with 156.4 yards per game; those numbers help contribute to Western Kentucky scoring 42.8 points a game, tied for 4th in the nation while they rank tied for 51st in the nation in scoring defense by allowing 24.7 points per contest. Brandon Doughty has been dominant under center, completing 72.8 percent of his throws (295 of 405) for 3,814 yards, 37 TD and 6 INT while averaging 9.42 yards per pass attempt. That helps make up for a run game that struggled early on but now averages 4.9 yards per carry: D’Andre Ferby is second on the team with 118 carries for 485 yards and nine scores while Anthony Wales has 105 carries for 802 yards plus six scores. That duo has to produce with Leon Allen (27 carries, 137 yards, 2 TD) done for the year. Five players have hauled in at least 31 passes for the Hilltoppers: Taywan Taylor leads the team with 68 receptions for 1,151 yards and 14 scores. Jared Dangerfield (64 catches, 642 yards, 7 TD), Tyler Higbee (31 grabs, 463 yards, 6 TD), Nicholas Norris (46 receptions, 729 yards, 3 TD) and Antwane Grant (38 catches, 470 yards, 5 TD) are part of a plethora of riches at the skill positions. Garrett Schwettman has hit 62 of 63 extra points and 11 of 12 field goal attempts with a long of 46 yards.
Western Kentucky is 4-0 ATS in their last four after giving up less than 170 yards through the air, 6-1 ATS in their last seven after allowing less than 275 yards of offense, 14-3 ATS in their last 17 after allowing less than 20 points, 4-1 ATS in their last five in November and 6-2-1 ATS in their last nine conference games.
The Thundering Herd is good but they simply aren’t as explosive as they were a season ago. In a year or two when Litton has more experience and Marshall has added another player or two to load their explosiveness, they may reach those levels again. Western Kentucky has plenty of weapons, a ton of firepower and veteran leadership. Those factors should be more than enough to get the Conference USA East title for the Hilltoppers.