Two of the best teams in Conference USA are set to square off in an important Friday night clash in Huntington. The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs sit atop the East Division with an 8-1 overall record, including a 5-0 mark in conference play, and are riding an eight-game winning streak following last week’s 52-17 victory over North Texas. The Marshall Thundering Herd, 6-3 overall and 4-1 in C-USA, currently sit second behind FAU in the East Division.
However, Marshall’s current four-game win streak, extended by a 20-7 win at Rice last week, also includes a 36-31 win over FAU last month. Should the Herd win out, Marshall would qualify for the Conference USA Championship Game. In other words, this could be the first of two games against Louisiana Tech this year.
Louisiana Tech at Marshall
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Marshall -2.5
When Louisiana Tech Has the Ball
Louisiana Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith is one of the longest-tenured QBs in the conference and was slated to make his 37th career start Friday. However, Smith was suspended due to a violation of athletic department policy. Smith has completed 65.1 percent of his passes for 2,483 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions as a senior, while averaging 8.2 yards per pass attempt. Smith ranks second in C-USA in passing offense (275.9 yards per game). He has also gained 226 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns on the ground. Needless to say, Smith's suspension is a big loss for Louisiana Tech's offense. Backup Aaron Allen is expected to work as the Bulldogs No. 1 quarterback on Friday night. The redshirt freshman has attempted only nine passes this season.
In addition to Smith, No. 1 receiver Adrian Hardy is also suspended for Friday night's matchup. Louisiana Tech has a solid all-around group of receivers, but Hardy, whose 482 receiving yards pace the team, will be missed against Marshall. Cee Jay Powell leads the Bulldogs with 40 receptions, including one TD, and sits second with 457 receiving yards. Malik Stanley is close behind with 450 yards and three touchdowns on 25 catches. Griffin Hebert (22 receptions, 385 yards) leads the team with four touchdowns. Isaiah Graham (12 receptions, 263 yards, 1 TD) leads the squad with an explosive average of 21.92 yards per catch.
The running backs are also deep. Jaqwis Dancy and Israel Tucker entered the season competing for the top spot on the depth chart, but Justin Henderson emerged as the team’s primary ball carrier in late September. Henderson has gained 712 rushing yards on 109 carries — a solid average of 6.53 yards per attempt — and leads the conference with 14 rushing touchdowns. Tucker and Dancy, both of whom have battled injuries, have combined for 431 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Dancy has not played in any of the last three games.
When Marshall Has the Ball
The Marshall offense flows through Brenden Knox, who leads the conference with 933 rushing yards. Knox, who took over as the primary running back for the Thundering Herd after Tyler King was dismissed from the team in September, has scored eight touchdowns on 164 carries, and he has averaged 5.69 yards per attempt. Sheldon Evans (306 rushing yards, 1 TD) has stepped into the No. 2 role. Quarterback Isaiah Green, who like Knox and Evans is just a sophomore, ranks third on the team with 242 rushing yards and has scored two touchdowns.
Green has completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 1,876 yards and 12 touchdowns with six interceptions. Last week against Rice, Green was 17-for-22 passing (77.3 percent) for 269 yards and one touchdown. It was the second-best passing yardage performance of the season for Green, who is already making his 18th career start.
Marshall is thin at wide receiver but boasts two of the most talented tight ends in Conference USA. Armani Levias leads the team with 39 receptions, 442 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. He ranks in the top 20 in the league in receiving (49.1 yards per game). Xavier Gaines ranks second on the team with 23 receptions and is tied with wideout Willie Johnson (11 receptions, 261 yards) and fellow tight end Devin Miller (11 receptions, 84 yards) for second with two touchdowns. Johnson, who is also a threat in the running game (116 rushing yards, 2 TDs) leads the team with an average of 23.73 yards per catch. Freshman Broc Thompson leads the team’s wide receivers with 314 receiving yards on 17 receptions (18.47 ypr).
Both Marshall and Louisiana Tech rely heavily on the running game. The Thundering Herd rank second in C-USA in rushing offense (201.2), with the Bulldogs third (187.0). Tech has more balance, having been more successful moving the football through the air.
And the two are balanced on defense, with Marshall allowing 371.4 total yards per game and 5.56 yards per play, while the Bulldogs have surrendered 390.8 total yards per contest and 5.28 yards per snap. Neither has a big edge stopping the run or the pass, but the Thundering Herd has been much better rushing the passer. Marshall is tied for the conference lead and ranks No. 8 nationally with 32 sacks as a unit. Louisiana Tech has recorded 17 sacks.
Given the balanced rosters and production, it’s understandable that Marshall is just a slight favorite given its home-field advantage. Louisiana Tech has been a more consistent team overall this year and with an average of 52 points per game over the last four contests, the Bulldogs are clicking on all cylinders offensively. Marshall, which has suffered several key injuries on defense this year, may not be able to keep up with the explosive Bulldogs. However, with Smith and Hardy sidelined, the Thundering Herd should be able to win a close one on Friday night.
Prediction: Marshall 31, Louisiana Tech 24
(Top photo courtesy of Marshall Athletics)