8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Marshall -3, Over/Under: 54
A pair of teams that ended the Regular Season traveling in very different directions meet in Tampa, as the Marshall Thundering Herd look to earn yet another Bowl Victory while the South Florida Bulls are simply trying to end their 2018 campaign with a win in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl from Raymond James Stadium. For the second consecutive season, Marshall (8-4, 6-2 in CUSA) will be competing in a Bowl, the sixth time they’ve done so under the stewardship of Doc Holliday, who will be completing his ninth year with the Program, amassing a 69-46 record (.600) that includes a Conference USA Championship in 2014, and an unblemished 5-0 record in postseason contests. The Thundering Herd got off tot a slow start this year, winning three out of their first five games, but managed to finish strong nonetheless, taking five out of their final six league ties before facing Virginia Tech in the Regular Season Finale. With their 2018 book all but closed at this juncture, the consistent theme for this team has been Turnovers, which have played no small part in their successes and failures. During their initial 3-2 start, Holliday’s charges gave away the football a staggering fourteen times, leading to a unenviable Turnover Differential of Minus-4. This had a lot to do with their inexperience at Quarterback, where Redshirt Freshman Isaiah Green (55.4%, 2,060 YDS, 7.4 Y/A, 15 TD, 10 INT) endured his share of ups and downs, throwing seven of his ten interceptions during that particular stretch of play, which inevitably led to his benching in favor of Junior Quarterback Alex Thomson (53.0%, 506 YDS, 5.1 Y/A, 5 TD, 3 INT). Granted, it’s not as if Thomson acclimated himself any better than his predecessor, which ultimately led to Holliday reinstating Green as the Starter. Over the final five outings, Green went on to complete 55.7% of his Attempts for 952 Yards, with Seven Touchdowns to Four Interceptions, with the team as a whole committing ten in that span. Holliday would no doubt like to see that growth continue, particularly in regards to the rest of the Offense, which still possesses a few playmakers, namely Junior Receiver Tyre Brady (60 REC, 819 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 9 TD). After a 2017 campaign that saw the Miami (FL) Transfer catch Sixty-Two Passes for 942 Yards and Eight Touchdowns, the 6-3, 206 lb Wideout has nearly replicated those statistics to a tee, reeling in Sixty Receptions for 819 Yards and Nine Touchdowns. It also appears that Marshall has found a new weapon in the form of Freshman Tailback Brenden Knox (63 CAR, 365 YDS,5.8 Y/C, 3 TD), who despite receiving little action throughout term, went on to light up the Hokies in the 20-41 defeat, rushing for 204 Yards and a pair of scores on Twenty-Seven Carries. As a whole, the Offense did a fine job of carving up Virginia Tech’s Defense, totaling 452 Yards, 232 of which came via the run, though much of that yardage was negated due to a pair of Turnovers along with Eleven Penalties wiping out a wealth of yards. Fortunately, the Herd’s Defense has helped offset the high volume of Turnovers, by coming up with more than a few of their own, logging twenty-three on the year with just about everyone getting into the act, with a whopping fifteen different players registering a takeaway. Defensive Backs Chris Jackson (59 TKL, 1 INT, 15 PD, 1 FR) and Malik Grant (90 TKL, 9.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 8 PD) have been around the football all year long, while Defensive Linemen Channing Hames (41 TKL, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 SK, 2 PD) and Ty Tyler (36 TKL, 9.0 TFL, 8.0 SK1 FF) have wrecked havoc in the trenches on a regular basis. In addition to proving adept at getting their hands on the football, this unit has also been very staunch against the run, permitting opponents an average of 103.9 Rushing Yards on a scant 2.9 Yards per Carry.
Meanwhile, it’s been a tale of two season for South Florida (7-5, 3-5 in AAC), who after winning their first seven games entered into a full-fledged death spiral, losing each of their final five outings of the campaign. It must be extremely disappointing for Charlie Strong, who after guiding the Program to a 10-2 finish in his first term as their Head Coach, including a 38-34 victory over Texas Tech in the Birmingham Bowl, to see his charges falter in such a manner, particular given his expertise on the defensive side of the football. Excuse us for being blunt, but the Bulls have been anything but bullish on Defense in 2018, with opponents eviscerating them for 31.5 Points per Game (91st Overall) on a staggering 442.7 Total Yards, including 197.3 Yards against the Pass and another 245.4 Yards versus the Run. Injuries have played a major role in decimating their depth on Defense, during this current skid, leaving Strong to lean on his Offense to win shootouts week after week. Over the past five games, South Florida has allowed a dismal 39.6 Points on 488.8 Total Yards, proving particularly susceptible to the Run, where the opposition has had a proverbial field day, trampling them to the tune of 267.8 Yards on a embarrassing 5.4 Yards per Carry. When we last saw them, the Bulls barely showed up in the Regular Season Finale at home against instate rival Central Florida, who played half of the game without star Quarterback McKenzie Milton, though you wouldn’t know it given the outcome of the 10-38 defeat. The hosts fell behind early, trailing 17-3 at Halftime, though managed to cut it 17-10 early in the Third Quarter. However, everything fell apart rather quickly, as the Golden Knights ended the affair on a 21-0 run. When it was all said and done, the Bulls were gashed for 566 Total Yards, yielding a ridiculous 399 Yards of that total on the ground. Strong’s Starting Quarterback, Blake Barnett (62.1%, 2,477 YDS, 7.6 Y/A, 11 TD, 11 INT) sat out the contest with a sore shoulder, not to mention nagging lower body injuries, and it hasn’t been determined whether or not the former Alabama/Arizona State Transfer will be healthy enough to participate in this week’s showdown with Marshall. Barnett had quite a task ahead of him in replacing the likes of the departed Quinton Flowers, who in his tenure with the Program was a bonafide scoring machine, accounting for 112 Total Touchdowns in his career, though managed to keep the Offense prolific all the same. The Junior Quarterback is a real threat with his feet, rushing for 313 Yards and Eight Touchdowns on Ninety-Nine Carries, factoring into a Rushing Attack that has averaged a healthy 204.6 Yards on 5.1 Yards per Carry. Tailbacks Jordan Cronkrite (173 CAR, 1,095 YDS, 6.3 Y/C, 9 TD) and Johnny Ford (104 CAR, 737 YDS, 7.1 Y/C, 8 TD) have been explosive out of the Backfield adding to their considerable weapons cache. Ford in particular, was effective against Central Florida, rushing for 120 Yards on Sixteen Carries, while hauling another Two Receptions for Thirty-Nine Yards and a Touchdown. Hopefully Barnett will have recovered from his ailments for it’s no coincidence that this team’s descent happened once the injuries began to take their toll on him. After all, South Florida’s Defense has been awful throughout the term, but their Offense really fell off during their losing streak, averaging just 20.2 Points per Game opposed 35.6 in their seven wins.