Two Group of 5 programs will meet for the first time in sunny Tampa when the Marshall Thundering Herd take on the South Florida Bulls in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. The game is now being played at the Bulls’ home of Raymond James Stadium — moving over from Tropicana Field in nearby St. Petersburg.
Marshall has made two appearances in this game (2011, when it was the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl; '14, St. Petersburg Bowl), winning both against FIU and UConn, respectively. South Florida, meanwhile, has played in this bowl once, winning the inaugural game 41-14 against Memphis in 2008.
Now in his ninth season at the helm of the Thundering Herd, Doc Holliday is undefeated in bowls during his Marshall tenure. He's tied with Bob Pruett — who led the Herd from 1997-2004 — for the most bowl victories (five) by a Marshall head coach. The Herd (8-4, 6-2 Conference USA) have had an up-and-down campaign with two non-conference losses courtesy of ACC opponents NC State and Virginia Tech and their two C-USA defeats coming by a total of 12 points to Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss. The loss to the Hokies — which was a makeup game scheduled for Dec. 1 after both teams had September dates canceled because of Hurricane Florence — snapped a three-game winning streak and ended any chance of Marshall posting its first 10-win season since tallying three straight from 2013-15.
In his second season in Tampa, Charlie Strong has an opportunity to guide the Bulls (7-5, 3-5 American) to their fourth straight winning campaign, South Florida also is looking for its third straight bowl victory. Most importantly, Strong has an opportunity to close 2018 on a positive note after so many tough finishes at the end of the regular season. South Florida took off in the first eight weeks of the season, starting 7-0 and scoring more than 35 points per game in that span. The Bulls then hit a serious rough patch, losing five in a row and averaging just 20.2 points per game.
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl: Marshall (8-4) vs. South Florida (7-5)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
Spread: Marshall -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Run defense disparities
South Florida brings the ninth-worst run defense in the FBS into bowl season, allowing nearly 245 yards on the ground per game. The only other teams to finish worse than the Bulls in that category combined for 21 wins, with four of those teams (Georgia State, Louisville, Oregon State and UConn) winning either one or two games. On the other side, Marshall has done a fantastic job of limiting any opposing ground attacks from thundering through its defense. The Herd are giving up just 105.3 rushing yards per game, good for the 10th in the country. Opponents gain just 2.98 yards per carry against this Marshall team, which is the sixth-best mark in the nation. The Bulls will have a tough time running the football against the Thundering Herd, so they’ll need to get enough production from their passing game to help them move the ball down the field and put some points on the scoreboard.
2. South Florida's deep threats
The good news for the Bulls is that they have the pieces to make things happen through the air. It starts with Blake Barnett — who ranks third in the AAC and 19th nationally in total offense (280.6 ypg) — as the leader to this offense. He has help on the outside in the form of Randall St. Felix and Darnell Salomon. The wide receivers are explosive and in the top five in the conference in yards per catch at 19.0 and 17.6, respectively. Their ability to take the top off the Marshall defense could go a long way in helping the Bulls keep pace in this one. Marshall is in the middle of the pack in Conference USA against the pass, but has struggled against other teams in his respect. In four non-conference games, the Herd gave up 273.5 passing yards per game (compared to 210.8 in eight C-USA contests) with an 8:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio (vs. 7:9) and 141.45 passer rating (vs. 107.78).
3. Momentum (or lack thereof)
Once again, we see a situation where bowl teams aren’t exactly playing their best football when they reach the postseason. Marshall won three in a row and four of five before dropping the regular-season finale to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, which helped to give the Thundering Herd a boost entering December. South Florida, meanwhile, won its first seven games to stake its claim as one of the final undefeated teams in the nation. After a 21-point loss to Houston dropped the Bulls from the ranks of the unbeaten, the Bulls fell and fell quickly. Charlie Strong’s group lost its final five games of the regular season, including a 38-10 finish against UCF in the War on I-4. What remains to be seen is if Marshall will get over a small speed bump or if South Florida can manage to right the ship and send its seniors out with a win after a painful end to the regular season.
While both teams ended their respective regular seasons with a loss, it is Marshall coming in playing with much more momentum. With both teams having played in this bowl before, and because this is effectively a home game for USF as the teams square off at Raymond James Stadium, there is a level of familiarity for both teams that could serve to help them in preparation for the game. Look for the Thundering Herd's defense to be a big factor, especially if the Bulls struggle to get their offense going early.
Prediction: Marshall 31, South Florida 27
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.