It's been almost a month since the Marshall Thundering Herd scored a landmark Top 25 win over Appalachian State. With game postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thundering Herd (2-0) come off an unexpected layoff for their Conference USA opener against the WKU Hilltoppers on Saturday night.
The Hilltoppers (1-2) scored their first win of the 2020 season last week over Middle Tennessee, in what was Western Kentucky's C-USA opener. Will Marshall be well-rested or rusty heading into Saturday night's game? Let's break down the matchup.
Marshall at WKU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Marshall -7
When Marshall Has the Ball
Some of the most renowned teams in Marshall history, from the program's days as a banner-carrier for Div. I-AA into its flirtations with the New Year's Six in 2014, were built on explosive offense. The 2020 Thundering Herd team (which probably should be ranked) flexed its firepower in a season-opening rout of Eastern Kentucky but were much more methodical against Appalachian State.
That Marshall could still control the pace on a day in which Grant Wells went just 11-of-25 passing is a testament to the Herd's ground attack. Wells adds a layer with his mobility, while Brenden Knox can shoulder a heavy workload. A sprinkling of Xavier Gaines as either a ball-carrier or pass-catcher is the most combustible element for Marshall; if the Herd can get him space to operate, it could be a long night for a Western Kentucky defense that has allowed 200.0 yards rushing per game (62nd out of 74 FBS teams).
When WKU Has the Ball
Western Kentucky's transition to the FBS from Div. I-AA/FCS was rocky, but in the decade since alum Willie Taggart got it rolling, the Hilltoppers have been consistently competitive. That carried over from the Sun Belt to C-USA, with a constant being Western Kentucky's explosive offense.
Three games into the 2020 season, Western Kentucky has fallen short of 30 points all three times. That's uncharacteristic for the program's recent history, but not a deviation from Tyson Helton's first season at the helm. Last year's nine-win Hilltoppers averaged just 25.4 points per game, relying more on defense than a high-scoring offense. Ball control to complement the defense is the blueprint for Western Kentucky. That starts with dual-threat quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome.
Pigrome threw for three touchdowns against Liberty and two in last week's win over MTSU. He's also the Hilltoppers' leading rusher, averaging more than 60 yards per game.
Marshall's physicality vexed the potent Appalachian State offense the Herd's last time out. If the long layoff doesn't result in some rust, the Thundering Herd should be able to similarly impose their will on Western Kentucky. That leaves it up to Marshall's offense to capitalize.
While the Western Kentucky defense has been solid even in defeat, the prospects for the dam to burst late in the game if the Hilltopper offense cannot generate scoring opportunities makes for a likely Marshall win.
Prediction: Marshall 27, WKU 17
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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Brenden Knox photo courtesy of Marshall Athletics)