College football action in Conference USA has been tight throughout the 2020 season with teams within one or two wins of one another en route to the conference championship game. One team trying to separate from the back is the Marshall Thundering Herd. When the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders travel to Huntington, West Virginia, on Saturday, the plan is to play spoiler to the undefeated and No. 16 Marshall, which is also seeking a third consecutive win in this series.
The Blue Raiders (2-5, 2-3 C-USA) will be as rested and healthy as possible entering Joan C. Edwards Stadium after a two-week bye, one that included a postponement against Charlotte (Nov. 7). Momentum had been building, with the Raiders winning two of their last three contests, taking down FIU and Rice. The blueprint for Middle Tennessee's success on the field relies on the arm and leg talents of quarterback Asher O'Hara.
The Herd (6-0, 3-0) may be known for their play on offense, but their defense is winning games on the gridiron. Nailing down teams to just 9.5 points per game, this unit has it all — run stoppers, pass rushers, and ballhawks in the secondary. Should a shootout develop, the offense is well-balanced, destroying determined opponents via an unrelenting rushing attack with five different receivers on any given drive who can move the chains.
Middle Tennessee at No. 16 Marshall
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 14 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Marshall -23.5
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
When catching the broadcast on TV, get ready for a heavy dose of well-deserved O'Hara lines. The junior is dynamic in more ways than one, leading Conference USA in passing yards (1,509), tied atop the conference in completion rate (65.2 percent), and tied for second in touchdown passes (11). Where Blue Raiders fans need to worry is when O'Hara tries to force a pass; his eight interceptions are also tied for the CUSA lead. Because of his big-play abilities, he also tends to hold onto the ball too long, as he leads the conference in another dubious honor: sacks taken (18).
A reason O'Hara may press on passing downs is a lack of a strong rushing attack. The Raiders are nearing the bottom third of the FBS ranks at 139.6 yards per contest. Guess who is leading the team in rushing yards? That's right, O'Hara, who is fourth in the conference with 476 yards and six touchdowns on 139 carries. To put that into perspective, only four other players in the country have had more rushing attempts than O'Hara. When he does hand the ball off, Chaton Mobley and Jayy McDonald have been effective, each averaging close to five yards per carry on a combined 89 attempts.
With the nation's third-ranked defense, Marshall will key on O'Hara and seek to take away his top receiver, Jarrin Pierce (46 receptions, 451 yards, 2 touchdowns). The Thundering Herd live in the opponent's backfield with 36 tackles for a loss and 21 sacks. Redshirt senior linebacker Tavante Beckett is the thumper in the box, leading the team in tackles (58) and fumble recoveries (3) to go along with five tackles for a loss.
When Marshall Has the Ball
Matching yard for yard with O'Hara is Thundering Herd freshman quarterback Grant Wells. Wells jumped out of the gate hot, putting up 307 yards and four touchdowns through the air against FCS member Eastern Kentucky, but has been less of a playmaker and more of a field general in the five games since. With a strong defense and a solid ground attack, all Wells needs to do is take what the defense gives him, avoid sacks and turnovers. Wells drives defenses crazy with how efficiently he spreads the ball out to his receivers. Redshirt senior tight end Xavier Gaines is the leader of this unit with 19 receptions for 231 yards and three scores.
Setting up the passing game is one of the nation's best rushing attacks, ranked 26th out of 123 active FBS teams at 209.2 yards per game. Brenden Knox and Sheldon Evans lead the way. Knox is third in Conference USA with 674 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, and those ahead of him have had more opportunities thus far; Evans has gone for 200 yards and three scores on 47 attempts.
Opposing offenses have been having a field day lighting up the scoreboard against Middle Tennessee's defense. The Blue Raiders are giving up 37.1 points per game and 245.9 yards on the ground per contest alone. MTSU figures to have its hands full trying to contain Knox and Evans on Saturday.
One of the nation's best defenses against a one-man offense seems like a losing proposition for Asher O'Hara and Middle Tennessee. Marshall's offense is too dynamic to be stymied even if the run game is limited for parts of a quarter here and there. Keeping it on the ground should help keep the final score low, especially with a chance of rain during the game.
Prediction: Marshall 35, Middle Tennessee 10
Podcast: Week 11 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.