Thundering Herd look for third consecutive win against Blue Raiders in key Conference USA East Division clash
The close games favor Middle Tennessee. The blowouts? Those go the way of Marshall. The Blue Raiders won the meetings in 2013 and '15 by a combined five points, while each of the Thundering Herd’s last three wins in the series have been by at least 25 points. The last time these two Conference USA East Division rivals met in Huntington, Marshall won 42-17 on Nov. 12, 2016.
Statistically speaking, Middle Tennessee and Marshall enter Week 6 having traveled very similar routes to arrive at this point. Middle Tennessee has averaged 25 points per game through its first four, while Marshall has the slight upper hand at 26.75 points per game. They both do a good job of maintaining possession, with both holding the ball for more than 28 minutes per game and the average time of possession differing by just seven seconds between the two.
Middle Tennessee comes off a hard-fought, one-point road win at Florida Atlantic last Saturday. Brent Stockstill completed 68 percent of his passes (27-for-40) for 259 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His arm carried the offense against the Owls, with the run game — Stockstill included — totaling just 137 yards on 36 carries, though Brad Anderson and Tavares Thomas did tally a rushing touchdown apiece. Patrick Smith led the way with five catches for 89 yards, while Thomas hauled in Stockstill’s only touchdown pass of the game. The win followed a 49-7 beating at the hands of Georgia in Athens the previous week, where the Blue Raiders mustered slightly more yards on the ground (158) than Stockstill did through the air (138).
Marshall also followed a sizable loss to a Power 5 opponent with an important conference win. The Thundering Herd pulled out a 20-17 win over Western Kentucky in a game that was tied at 10 at halftime, a score that help up entering the fourth quarter. While not very efficient — completing just 18 of his 39 passes in the game and tossing three interceptions — Isaiah Green did throw for 288 yards and a pair of touchdowns, accounting for the only Thundering Herd trips to the end zone. Green found Tyre Brady for nearly half (eight) of his 18 completions, which went for 162 yards and both scores.
Middle Tennessee at Marshall
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Marshall -6
Three Things to Watch
1. First down progress
These two teams find themselves in the bottom 15 of the FBS in first downs gained on offense. They have combined for 150 first downs in eight games, while Texas Tech has amassed 162 by itself in five games. First downs keep a team’s offense on the field and allow its defense to rest on the sidelines while causing fatigue to the opposing unit, so look for first down success (or a lack of) to be a critical factor in how well these offenses operate on Friday.
2. Can Middle Tennessee get it going on the ground?
The Blue Raiders have had little success running the ball, coming in at 122 rushing yards per game. While that's slightly higher than Marshall’s output (106.8 ypg), that figure still doesn’t bode well against a Thundering Herd defense featuring two of Conference USA’s best tacklers. Chase Hancock and Malik Gant are Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, in the conference in tackles per game, so that defensive strength coupled with Middle Tennessee’s inability to run the ball could make for a long afternoon for the Blue Raiders.
3. Momentum capture
With Middle Tennessee and Marshall both hanging on for close wins last week, both sides enter with a lot of momentum to their credit. The Blue Raiders fell behind 14-0 after one quarter to Florida Atlantic while Marshall only mustered seven points in the opening quarter against Western Kentucky, so early offense will be crucial here. If one team can take control and apply some early pressure that could go a long way in determining the outcome of this matchup.
Both sides enter after tough and close wins, so it’s not hard to imagine the Blue Raiders and Thundering Herd coming out with a lot of energy early on, looking to keep the good fortunes going. But Marshall is simply the better team here, and the home-field advantage certainly helps. Should Marshall pull it out, this ought to be the Herd's closest victory of any in the series between the two Conference USA East Division foes.
Prediction: Marshall 31, Middle Tennessee 20
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of Marshall Athletics)