For the first time since 2003, college football is back on Christmas Day, as Marshall and Buffalo square off in the Camellia Bowl. The Thundering Herd and Bulls ranked as two of the top Group of 5 programs in the nation this season, and there’s plenty of motivation for both teams to rebound after falling short in the conference title game.
Buffalo dominated the MAC en route to a 5-0 start. Behind a standout offensive line and running back Jaret Patterson, the Bulls won all five regular-season games by 19 or more points. However, coach Lance Leipold’s team fell short of a MAC title after a 38-28 defeat to Ball State last Friday. Buffalo outgained the Cardinals 499 yards to 439 but had a field goal that was blocked, a fumble returned for a touchdown, an interception and two drives end on downs in the second half. Leipold has Buffalo trending up with a 36-33 record since he arrived in 2015. The Bulls are 23-10 overall and have won two division titles over the last three years.
Marshall started its 2020 season with a 7-0 record and cracked the first edition of the CFB Playoff rankings. The Thundering Herd dominated Eastern Kentucky 59-0 in the season opener, followed by a 17-7 victory against Appalachian State on Sept. 19. Coach Doc Holliday’s team won its first four conference games following that game, picking up wins against WKU, Louisiana Tech, FAU and Middle Tennessee, along with a 51-10 blowout versus UMass in non-conference play. However, Marshall lost a 20-0 game to Rice on Dec. 5 and dropped a 22-13 matchup to UAB in the Conference USA Championship Game last Friday.
Marshall holds an 8-0 series edge over Buffalo. These two teams haven't met since 2004 when both were members of the MAC. The Bulls are 1-3 all-time in bowl games. The Thundering Herd are 12-3 in 15 all-time postseason trips.
Camellia Bowl: Marshall vs. Buffalo
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 25 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Buffalo – 4.5
When Marshall Has the Ball
After a fast start to 2020, Marshall's offense has struggled the last two games. The Thundering Herd scored at least 38 points in five of the team's first seven contests but have just 13 over the last two matchups. The offense mustered only 245 yards in a 20-0 loss to Rice on Dec. 5 and posted 268 in last Friday's defeat to UAB in the Conference USA title game. Despite those setbacks, the overall numbers for Doc Holliday's team aren't bad. The Thundering Herd average 30.6 points a game and rank second in Conference USA with 6.01 yards per snap.
Getting quarterback Grant Wells back on track would help the offense get back to its performance level prior to the Rice game. The redshirt freshman torched Eastern Kentucky with four touchdown passes in the season opener and threw for five against Middle Tennessee in mid-November. For the season, Wells has passed for 1,977 yards and 18 touchdowns to nine picks and has added 175 yards and two scores on the ground. The West Virginia native tossed five picks against Rice and has also watched his yards per attempt drop to 4.7 and 6.0 over the last two games. Injuries have taken a toll on Wells' receiving corps, but tight end Xavier Gaines (26 catches) and receivers Corey Gammage (29), Artie Henry (21), and Willie Johnson (18) provide enough weapons to keep the passing game on track. Ball State found some success against Buffalo's secondary last week (273 yards), but this defense has been stingy all year against the pass (54.4 completion percentage allowed).
In addition to the pressure to rebound after sluggish performances the last two games, Wells has some extra weight on his shoulders against Buffalo. The offense won't have leading rusher Brenden Knox (887 yards and nine touchdowns) after he opted to begin training for the NFL draft. With Knox out of the lineup, Sheldon Evans (248 yards and four touchdowns) is expected to get the bulk of the carries. Marshall's offensive line has paved the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per rush and has only surrendered eight sacks in nine games. But coordinator Tim Cramsey will have to do some shuffling after left tackle Josh Ball also opted to prepare for the draft.
Buffalo's defense should be one of the better groups Marshall has faced this year, which is a tough task for an offense looking to rebound after back-to-back disappointing performances. The Bulls are holding teams to 5.4 yards per play and 23.8 points a game, don't allow many big plays, and forced 10 turnovers through six games.
When Buffalo Has the Ball
When Buffalo has the ball, it's no secret what's coming. The Bulls lean heavily on the run to power an offense that averaged 47.8 points a game and 7.9 yards per snap in the abbreviated 2020 six-game slate. Lance Leipold's group averaged just 21.7 passes a game and ran the ball on 70 percent of their plays.
The heart and soul of Buffalo's offense is running back Jaret Patterson. The senior needed only 141 carries to get to 1,000 yards (1,072) and he has scored 19 times. Patterson was banged up in the loss to Ball State, but Leipold indicated the senior is likely to play some in the bowl game. Even if Patterson is limited, the ground game is in good hands. Backup Kevin Marks (603 yards and six scores) is next in line for carries behind an offensive line that ranked among the best in the Group of 5 ranks. The combination of Buffalo's offensive line and the Marks-Patterson duo will meet some resistance on Friday. Marshall ranked first in Conference USA against the run and held teams to 2.7 yards per carry. This defense allowed only one team (UAB) to run for more than 130 yards in 2020. However, this unit won't have leading tackler Tavante Beckett (90 stops) in this game after he opted out with the intention of preparing for the NFL draft.
As mentioned previously, the rushing attack is the focal point for the offense. But quarterback Kyle Vantrease is capable of making plenty of plays through the air to keep opposing defenses honest. The senior threw for 1,186 yards and seven touchdowns to just two picks in six games this fall. Additionally, he threw for 365 yards (a career high) in the MAC title game. Vantrease's top target is fellow senior Antonio Nunn (33 catches), but Trevor Wilson (14), Jovany Ruiz (13), and tight end Zac Lefebvre (11) rounding out the top weapons in the passing game. The Thundering Herd ranked fourth in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and tied for the conference lead with 25 sacks.
All of the attention in this matchup will be focused on Patterson, but the Buffalo offensive line against Marshall's defense will decide which team comes out on top. The Thundering Herd aren't giving up much on a per-play basis (4.4) and are surrendering just 12.6 points per game. Also, this unit has allowed only two runs of 30 yards or more and ranks second in Conference USA with 14 forced turnovers. Can Patterson and Marks find running room to open up some play-action shots by Vantrease downfield? Or will Marshall's defense control the line of scrimmage and force Buffalo out of its comfort zone?
The Camellia Bowl has a history of producing close games, and another tight battle should be anticipated on Friday. Of the previous six matchups in this postseason game, all were decided by eight points or less. There are some similarities between these two teams with a strong rushing attack and defense during the regular season. However, three key players for Marshall opted out, including running back Brenden Knox. On the other sideline, Patterson and Marks are expected to play, giving Buffalo a boost as it looks to rebound from the loss to Ball State. With similar styles and a relatively even matchup according to the spread, whichever team can win the battle up front, limit turnovers and connect on a few plays in the passing game should come out on top. A small edge here goes to Leipold and Buffalo on Christmas Day.
Prediction: Buffalo 27, Marshall 24
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(Jaret Patterson photo by Paul Hokanson/UBBulls.com)