In Marshall and Middle Tennessee you have a pair of Conference USA East Division teams that have swapped places when it comes to preseason expectations. The Blue Raiders were projected to be a threat to Western Kentucky for the top spot, while the Thundering Herd were being viewed as a borderline bowl team.
Halfway through the season and a look at the standings finds Marshall (5-1, 2-0 CUSA) one win away from bowl eligibility and tied for first in the East with FAU, while Middle Tennessee (3-4, 1-2) has struggled to find any consistency on offense due to injuries to starting quarterback Brent Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James.
A win in Murfreesboro on Friday night would not only punch the Thundering Herd’s postseason ticket, it also would be a big step toward a potential division title. Meanwhile if the Blue Raiders want to come close to meeting those preseason expectations, protecting their home turf with a victory over the team that’s currently in first place would be a good place to start.
Marshall at Middle Tennessee
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Marshall -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Middle Tennessee’s MIA offense
Entering the season, the Blue Raiders were expected to have one of the top quarterback-wide receiver combinations in the nation in Brent Stockstill and Richie James. The junior signal caller, who also is head coach Rick Stockstill’s son, threw for 3,223 yards and 31 touchdowns in just 10 games last season as he missed the final three because of a broken collarbone. James, a junior, is the FBS’ active leader in receptions (239) and is second in yards (3,224).
This season, the duo has played in just two games together (vs. Vanderbilt, at Syracuse) because of injuries. James returned to action last week after missing the previous three games because of a high ankle sprain. Stockstill hasn’t played since the Sept. 16 game at Minnesota because of a cracked sternum/broken collarbone, and he has already been ruled out for Friday night’s home date with Marshall.
In Stockstill’s absence, John Urzua has gone 2-3 as the starter. Urzua, a redshirt sophomore, has completed 64.2 percent of his passes for an average of 260.4 yards per game, but he also has thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six). Stockstill and James’ absence is one reason why Middle Tennessee is averaging just 20.4 points per game this season compared to 39.7 in 2016. With James finally back in the lineup, maybe he can provide a boost to an offense that could use one, especially against the Thundering Herd’s stingy defense.
2. The Marshall Plan – defense, defense and more defense
A big reason for the Thundering Herd’s impressive 5-1 start is a defense that ranks ninth in the nation in points allowed at 15 points per game. Nearly half of the total points (37 of 90) and touchdowns (5 of 11) given up by Marshall to this point came courtesy of one team – undefeated NC State, currently ranked 16th in the AP Top 25 poll. In two Conference USA games thus far, the Thundering Herd have surrendered a grand total of two field goals in wins over Charlotte and Old Dominion.
Overall, Marshall is allowing 321.8 yards per game, good for third in the conference and 29th in the FBS. The Thundering Herd also is top 30 nationally against the run (119.3 ypg, 29th) and have held opponents to a completion rate of 53.8 percent (tied for 23rd in FBS) and 202.5 passing yards per game. With Middle Tennessee’s offense struggling to find its rhythm, Marshall’s defense is not exactly the sight the Blue Raiders want to see at home on Friday night.
3. Herd has some thunder on offense too
As well as Marshall’s defense has played, the offense has done its part. Nothing about this offense jumps off of the stat sheet, but it has been productive, averaging 26.5 points per game. In fact, Marshall’s offense is even with Middle Tennessee’s from a yardage standpoint, even though the Blue Raiders’ attack was much more heralded entering the season. Again, Middle Tennessee’s middling offensive production to this point can be attributed to injuries.
For the Thundering Herd, quarterback Chase Litton is second in Conference USA with 13 touchdown passes, and he’s thrown just three interceptions. His top target is junior wide receiver Tyre Brady, who is among the top three in the conference in receptions (34), receiving yards (571) and touchdowns (six). On the ground, junior Keion Davis has just one touchdown, but he’s averaging 5 yards per carry. Look for these three to lead Marshall’s charge on offense.
Based on preseason projections, neither Marshall nor Middle Tennessee’s season has gone according to plan at the halfway point. The Thundering Herd are in the thick of the Conference USA East Division title chase thanks to a stingy defense. The Blue Raiders have struggled on offense due to injuries to their two best players. Wide receiver Richie James’ return should give Middle Tennessee a boost, but not enough of one to overcome Marshall’s defense and the Blue Raiders’ issues with ball security (minus-9 turnover margin). The Thundering Herd escape Murfreesboro with a win that lets them maintain their spot atop the division standings for at least one more week.
Prediction: Marshall 27, Middle Tennessee 17
(Chase Litton photo courtesy of Marshall Athletics)