Huntington, WV (SportsNetwork.com) – With just one game remaining in the
regular season, the 19th-ranked Marshall Thundering Herd will try to stay
unbeaten as they host the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in a Conference USA
bout at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Western Kentucky sits on a 6-5 overall record, and although the Hilltoppers
aren’t going to the Conference USA championship game in their first year as a
member of the league, they are bowl eligible. They’ve won three games in a
row, including a decisive 45-7 victory over UTSA last weekend.
Marshall is one of two unbeaten teams in the nation (Florida State being the
other), and already owns a spot in the C-USA championship game with an
unblemished league mark. The Herd almost let it all slip away with a narrow
23-18 victory over UAB last weekend.
Marshall leads the all-time series with Western Kentucky, 4-1. The last time
these new conference rivals met, however, was back in 1996, when the
Thundering Herd won, 37-3. Marshall owns a 3-0 advantage in Huntington.
Western Kentucky has built a solid foundation this season around its offense,
led by quarterback Brandon Doughty. The Hilltoppers enter this game against
Marshall averaging 41.9 ppg, which means this could be the most offense
Marshall faces all season long. In 11 games, Doughty has thrown for 3,853
yards (ranked second in the FBS – 20 yards behind the injured Connor Halliday
of Washington State) with 36 touchdown passes, which is the most in the FBS
Last season for the Hilltoppers, the run game was essential. This year it’s
more of a complementary aspect with Leon Allen, who has rushed 1,253 yards and
11 touchdowns. Allen averages a respectable 113.9 rushing ypg, and has carried
the ball 226 times this season.
Doughty has done an excellent job spreading the ball around to various
receivers. Jared Dangerfield leads the team with 56 receptions and 621 yards,
adding in a team-high eight touchdown grabs. Willie McNeal (seven touchdowns),
Taywan Taylor (six touchdowns) and Antwane Grant (five touchdowns) are all
receiving threats for WKU.
Offense has been plentiful for the Hilltoppers, but the downfall for the team
has been on the defensive side. Western Kentucky allows 36.8 ppg and 483.1
offensive ypg to opponents this season through 11 contests, which has allowed
teams like UAB (42 points), Florida Atlantic (45 points) and Louisiana Tech
(59 points) to pick up crucial wins against the Hilltoppers. WKU has been
especially bad against the run, allowing 224.1 rushing ypg to opponents.
Nick Holt has been a threat defensively, racking up 93 tackles with seven
tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. Dejon Brown is the next
closest Hilltopper to Holt with 65 tackles on the year, and Ge’Monee Brown has
a team-best eight tackles for loss. The Hilltoppers will need to force some
Marshall turnovers in order to stay competitive in this one.
Marshall’s 23-point outing against UAB was by far the lowest total for the
Herd this season, but a win is a win in coach Doc Holliday’s eyes. Now the
team must pick up its final one in the regular season against the high-scoring
Hilltoppers this weekend at home.
“(Coach) Jeff Brohm has done a tremendous job – they’re bowl eligible for the
first year in Conference USA,” Holliday said. “I think that is a tribute to
him and what he’s done. Their quarterback, Brandon Doughty, is a tremendous
player who’s thrown for a ton of yardage. … Offensively, they score a lot of
points, and defensively they are well-coached. They are going to come in here
ready to play, and we have to make sure we are too.”
The Herd are led offensively by Rakeem Cato under center. Cato hasn’t
necessarily had the campaign many had expected from him, but with 28 touchdown
passes, 2,897 yards and a 157.7 passer efficiency rating, he is one of the
best leaders and field generals in all of college football.
In the run game, a pleasant surprise has been the emergence of Devon Johnson.
The tight end convert has carried the ball 184 times this season, and has
gained an eye-popping 1,573 yards with 16 touchdowns. And he missed a game
with a leg injury. He leads the team with 157.3 rushing ypg, and has helped
the Herd score 44.9 ppg this season.
Cato has a reliable set of weapons through the air, led by veteran pass
catcher Tommy Shuler. Shuler has caught a team-best 57 passes this season for
737 yards and seven touchdowns, while talented freshman Angelo Jean-Louis has
racked up 456 yards with five touchdowns in 11 games played. Tight End Eric
Frohnapfel is second on the team with 30 receptions, adding 375 yards and a
trio of scores to his resume.
While Marshall’s offense is crushing foes, the team’s defense has been doing
the same. The Herd are allowing just 16.5 ppg to opponents, including just
324.4 offensive ypg. Only twice this season has a challenger managed to
accumulate more than 20 points against the Herd defense, with UAB’s 18 points
being the third-highest total for an opponent this year.
Linebacker Neville Hewitt leads Marshall’s defense with 91 tackles, and also
has registered 10 tackles for loss with 4.5 sacks. The ability to get after
opposing quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield has been apparent
throughout the season for the Thundering Herd, who have three defensive
players that all own tackles for loss totals in the double digits. In the
secondary, players like Taj Letman (three interceptions), Darryl Roberts and
Corey Tindal will need to be wide awake when going up against one of the
nation’s leading passers.
“I spoke to Jimbo [Fisher, head coach at Florida State] the other day, and for
them to win that many games is tremendous,” Holliday said. “If winning was
easy, there would be a lot more people in this position than us and Florida
State. At some point, you have to grind them out. Florida State has had to
grind a bunch out, we had to grind one out Saturday and that’s a tribute to
all of these guys. At the end of the day, it’s about winning and losing, and
in the last two years these guys have won 21 of them.”