The Marshall Thundering Herd seek their first win in more than a month when they host the UAB Blazers in the Conference USA Championship Game in Huntington, West Virginia, on Friday night. The winner would secure its second-ever Conference USA title, with Marshall winning its first (and only) previous conference championship in a 26-23 win over Louisiana Tech in 2014 while UAB's lone conference title came just two years ago in a 27-25 win over Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro.
UAB (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) spent six weeks between what ultimately became its penultimate and final regular-season games, beating Rice 21-16 on Saturday in its first game action since a 37-34 double-overtime loss at Louisiana Tech on Oct. 31. After a low-scoring first half which saw just two touchdowns and two field goals en route to a 13-7 Rice lead at halftime, UAB jumped in front with a pair of third-quarter touchdowns and held the Owls to just a field goal in the fourth quarter to secure the win and the Conference USA West division crown.
Marshall's (7-1, 4-1) road has also been bumpy, but thanks to Florida Atlantic's 45-31 loss at Southern Miss last Thursday, the Thundering Herd clinched the East division title, even while watching from home as their anticipated regular-season finale at home on Dec. 11 against Charlotte (after already being postponed from Nov. 21) was officially cancelled. In the loss to Rice, the Herd mustered just 245 total yards while Grant Wells threw five interceptions, including three in as many third-quarter possessions.
Friday's Conference USA Championship Game will be the 11th all-time meeting between UAB and Marshall. Ever since the Blazers and Thundering Herd first met in 2005, the series has been decided as follows: three straight Marshall wins, a UAB win, three more consecutive Marshall wins, a UAB win, two Marshall wins. The Thundering Herd are 5-0 when hosting the Blazers in Huntington and have won each of the last two matchups, the most recent a 23-18 win in Birmingham in 2014.
Conference USA Championship Game: UAB at Marshall
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 18 at 6 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Marshall -5.5
When UAB Has the Ball
Quarterbacks Tyler Johnston III and Bryson Lucero have split time under center throughout the season, with the two sharing the position over the first two weeks. But Lucero managed signal-caller duties after Johnston III suffered a shoulder injury which forced him to miss the middle chunk of the season before he returned against Louisiana Tech. Johnston was key in the win over Rice, though, throwing for 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns — adding 41 rushing yards on seven carries — despite completing just nine of his 18 passes.
Despite its bottom-30 rank in passing offense in 2020, UAB has more than thrived in the running game. The Blazers rank third in Conference USA this season in rushing, averaging 189.9 yards per game. Atop the list is Spencer Brown, who ranks second in the conference with 10 rushing touchdowns and is third in yards with 740. DeWayne McBride provides a nice complement to Brown, sitting top 15 in C-USA in both touchdowns (four, 10th) and yards (396, 14th) entering this week. Both missed the game against Rice due to contact tracing for COVID-19, but both should be back for Friday's game.
UAB's offense will face its toughest test yet when it meets Marshall, who leads FBS with just 11.4 points allowed per game in 2020. The Thundering Herd also boast the second-best rushing (73.0 ypg) and total (253.9 ypg) defense in 2020, the latter of which actually improved in the loss to Rice with the Owls totaling just 245 yards. Rice actually became the first team to score 20 points against Marshall in 2020, with Louisiana Tech (17) the only other team this season to score more than 14 points against the Herd. Marshall also leads Conference USA — and ranks 9th nationally — in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert a little more than 30 percent of such opportunities.
When Marshall Has the Ball
Grant Wells' five interceptions against Rice marked a season-high for the redshirt freshman, as he had thrown just four total in seven previous games and was coming off a sparking 336-yard, five-touchdown performance against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 14. The month-long spell without game action likely played at least a minor role in the poor showing against Rice, as he entered that game with a 16:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and even now still leads the conference with 229.9 passing yards per game.
Marshall's offense has been fairly balanced throughout 2020, with its passing and rushing averages ranking second and fourth, respectively, in Conference USA. Brenden Knox is among the conference leaders in rushing, with his 820 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground also good for top-25 marks nationally. If he can total at least 180 yards in the remainder of the Herd's games this season, Knox would notch his second consecutive 1,000-yard campaign after posting 1,387 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019.
Wells won't exactly have an easy time turning around his recent struggles when he goes against UAB, as the Blazers enter this week second in Conference USA in both passing (177.6 ypg) and total (316.5 ypg) defense, good for 12th and 15th in FBS. UAB has leveraged that strength to keep opponents off the scoreboard, as its double-overtime loss to Louisiana Tech was its first game giving up 30 or more points since the Miami Hurricanes scored 31 nearly two months prior.
Ever since its season-opening win against FCS foe Central Arkansas, UAB has yet to win a game in which it allowed more than 16 points. The Blazers have alternated high-scoring and low-scoring games in 2020, as each of their games with at least 30 points has been followed by an output of 21 or fewer. For Marshall to notch its third three-game winning streak against UAB and claim the Conference USA title, it will need to continue its defensive dominance while reclaiming some semblance of its offensive momentum lost due to the six-week layoff.
Prediction: Marshall 27, UAB 20
Podcast: Path to the Playoff + Championship Game Previews and Picks
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.