The North Texas Mean Green continue their quest for their first FBS win of the 2021 college football season when they host the Marshall Thundering Herd on Friday night in Denton. Marshall is coming off its first win in a month when the Thundering Herd took down Old Dominion in overtime on Saturday, with each of the Herd's last four games — including the win over the Monarchs — being decided by seven or fewer points.
The Thundering Herd (3-3, 1-1 Conference USA) scored 49 and 44 points, respectively, to start the season in wins over Navy and FCS North Carolina Central but have yet to eclipse the 40-point mark in any of the next four. The news isn't much better for the Mean Green (1-4, 0-2), though, as North Texas scored 44 in a 30-point win over FCS Northwestern State in its season opener but had amassed just 45 in its next three games — all losses — before posting 35 in a 13-point loss last week.
These two sides will be meeting for the first time in just over five years when they take the field on Friday night. The Thundering Herd opened with a 7-0 win in 1988 and followed with a 30-13 victory in 2015, but it was the Mean Green who came away victorious with a 38-21 win in their last meeting in Denton in 2016.
Marshall at North Texas
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Marshall -11
When Marshall Has the Ball
The Thundering Herd may have had their struggles in the first half of the season, but Grant Wells has done what he can to keep the passing game alive. With 1,992 yards for the season and 332 per game, Wells trails only WKU's Bailey Zappe for the conference lead and ranks among the top 10 nationally in both categories. His pair of interceptions against the Monarchs gave him nine already for 2021 — the highest total in the FBS entering Week 7 — and left Wells as one of 14 quarterbacks in the nation with more picks than scores (eight). However, his resiliency to bounce back and throw a touchdown in both the fourth quarter and overtime — his final two passes of the game — were enough to spur the comeback win over Old Dominion.
Speaking of touchdowns, Saturday marked Rasheen Ali's first game without one since Week 2. Ali stands alone atop the FBS with 11 touchdowns on the ground and is among Conference USA's top three rushers with 560 yards and just over 94 per game. In six games, Ali already has three with at least a trio of touchdowns, topped by his four-touchdown effort — on just 14 carries — in the season-opening 49-7 win at Navy.
Ali's success will be hard-pressed not to continue, as North Texas has been porous when it comes to stopping the run, to the tune of 200 rushing yards per game allowed. The Mean Green have had quite distinct showings in their last two games, holding Louisiana Tech to just 79 yards on the ground two weeks ago while Missouri gashed them for 314 yards this past Saturday. North Texas has done well to force the ball on the ground, recovering six fumbles thus far which enters as a top-20 total in the FBS.
When North Texas Has the Ball
The 35 points that the Mean Green scored in last week's loss to Missouri matched the combined total from their three previous losses: 12 at SMU, 6 vs. UAB, and 17 at Louisiana Tech. Despite the ultimate total on the scoreboard, UNT quarterback Austin Aune seemed to provide a spark to the offense in his first start of 2021. After the Mean Green had tallied just one game with more than 200 passing yards — while finishing two games with fewer than 100 yards through the air — Aune replaced graduate transfer Jace Ruder on Saturday and threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns, with an additional 59 rushing yards on 15 carries.
Even though the passing game has had its share of poor performances, North Texas has relied quite heavily — and with good reason — on its rushing attack. Paced by DeAndre Torrey's Conference USA-best 120.2 yards per game, which is the sixth-highest average nationally entering Week 7, the Mean Green are the conference's lone representative in the 200 yards per game club. When Aune does elect to go to the air, he'll likely spread the ball around fairly evenly – his 16 completions against Missouri found seven different receivers, with a different recipient hauling in each of his four touchdowns.
The Mean Green's conference-leading rushing offense will be up against the conference's second-worst rushing defense, as the Thundering Herd have allowed nearly 212 yards per game on the ground. But they've done well to cause havoc in the backfield, as they pace Conference USA with four sacks and eight TFLs per game — good for fourth and sixth, respectively, in the FBS. Another key factor: Marshall's defense has buckled down inside the 20-yard line, allowing scores on just 13 of its opponents' 21 trips inside the red zone, a 62 percent clip which is tied with Florida Atlantic for the conference lead and for the fourth-best rate in the FBS.
Both of these teams opened with wins but haven't had much success in subsequent weeks. Momentum appears to be pretty soundly on the side of the Thundering Herd, as the Mean Green have yet to come out on top vs. an FBS foe. Marshall aims to capitalize on Saturday's win for its first victory away from Huntington on the season, but the Herd's turnover problems (nation's worst 16) ought to make this a closer game than many expect and could very well give North Texas a chance to pull out its first FBS win of 2021 in front of its home crowd in Denton.
Prediction: North Texas 27, Marshall 25
Podcast: Week 7 Preview & Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— 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.