Colorado State and Marshall both ended the regular season on a down note, but the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 16 is an opportunity to end the year with a little momentum. The Thundering Herd started 6-1 but won just one of their final five matchups. The Rams got off to a 6-2 start and finished just 1-3 over their final four games. While bowl games are just a one-game exhibition, Marshall and Colorado State would at least like to end the year with some hardware and erase the disappointment from November.
Colorado State was mentioned as a Mountain West title contender in the preseason and appeared be on track to play for the division title in November after the 6-2 start. But the Rams stumbled in late October with a loss to Air Force (45-28), followed by defeats to Wyoming (16-13) and Boise State (59-52 in overtime). In addition to the three conference losses, Colorado State suffered defeats to Alabama (41-23) and Colorado (17-3). Under coach Mike Bobo’s direction, the Rams have won seven games in each of the last three years. A win over Marshall would snap that streak and push Colorado State to eight victories – the highest mark since winning 10 in 2014.
Marshall is back in the bowl season after a one-year absence. The Thundering Herd won 33 games from 2013-15 but slipped to 3-9 last fall. Coach Doc Holliday’s team started the season by beating Miami (Ohio) in a 31-26 thriller and went into late October as one of Conference USA’s top teams at 6-1. However, Marshall lost back-to-back games to FIU and FAU, and after beating WKU 30-23 on Nov. 11, finished the season with defeats to UTSA and Southern Miss. The Thundering Herd had some bad luck on their side, as this team lost all four of their conference games by 11 points or less. This team also gave C-USA champion FAU (30-25) its toughest battle in league play.
Colorado State and Marshall have never met on the gridiron. The Rams have lost their last three bowl trips. On the flipside, the Thundering Herd are 4-0 in their four bowl appearances under Holliday.
New Mexico Bowl: Marshall (7-5) vs. Colorado State (7-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 16 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Colorado State -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Colorado State’s Passing Attack
Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for Colorado State this season. The Rams lead the Mountain West by averaging 33.8 points a game and yards per play at 6.7 a snap. In addition to the overall effectiveness on the scoreboard, Bobo’s offense was the best in the Mountain West at balance. Colorado State averaged 289.9 yards a game through the air and 211.1 per contest on the ground. Offensive coordinator Will Friend is set to join Jeremy Pruitt’s staff at Tennessee, but this unit won’t miss a beat with Bobo continuing as the unit’s play-caller.
Quarterback Nick Stevens earned first-team All-Mountain West honors after throwing for 3,479 yards and 27 touchdowns, but the star of the offense is receiver Michael Gallup. The senior was a finalist for the Biletnikoff after catching 94 passes for 1,345 yards and seven touchdowns. In addition to Gallup, Stevens has a couple of other reliable targets in Olabisi Johnson (35 catches), Detrich Clark (37) and tight end Dalton Fackrell (20). On the ground, Dalyn Dawkins (1,349 yards) and Izzy Matthews (583) were the leading rushers for Bobo’s offense. Matthews suffered a collarbone injury in early November and missed the final two games of 2017. However, he was cleared to play in Saturday's game. If Matthews is held out as a precaution or is limited, Rashaad Boddie (254 yards) is an effective No. 2 option. Led by first-team All-Mountain West selections in Jake Bennett and Zack Golditch, Colorado State’s offensive line allowed only eight sacks in 2017 and is one of the best at the Group of 5 level.
Considering the overall firepower, talent and balance Colorado State has on offense, this will be one of the toughest tests Marshall’s defense has faced in 2017. The Thundering Herd ranked second in Conference USA by limiting opponents to 19.3 points a game. Under the direction of veteran play-caller Chuck Heater, Marshall also led C-USA in rush defense, limited opponents to 4.98 yards a play, ranked first in red zone defense and third in the conference in third-down stops.
Can Marshall’s defense contain or find a way to slow down Stevens and Gallup on Saturday afternoon? The Thundering Herd have allowed 16 passing scores this season and rank 48th nationally in pass efficiency defense. However, when Marshall played NC State and WKU – arguably the top two passing offenses it faced this season – the defense gave up over 300 passing yards. In order to slow down Stevens and this offense, the Thundering Herd needs to generate pressure against a stalwart line, force a couple of takeaways and limit the big plays allowed.
2. Colorado State’s Defense Against Marshall’s Offense
The battle between Colorado State’s offense against Marshall’s defense is a matchup of strengths. But on the flipside of this battle, the Thundering Herd’s offense and the Rams’ defense both enter this matchup with something to prove.
Marshall’s offense averaged 26.3 points a game in 2017 but generated only nine plays of 40 or more yards. Also, the Thundering Herd ranked 10th among Conference USA offenses by averaging 5.3 yards per play, finished 12th in rush offense and 10th in red zone conversions. Quarterback Chase Litton eclipsed the 20-touchdown (23) mark for the third consecutive season, and the ground game showed some promise behind freshman Tyler King (714 yards) and junior Keion Davis (671). Junior Tyre Brady (56 catches) was Litton’s go-to target in the regular season but missed the final two games due to injury. He’s expected back for the bowl game, bolstering a receiving corps that also features Marcel Williams (41 catches), Willie Johnson (36) and tight end Ryan Yurachek (47).
Colorado State’s defense has yet to take the next step in Bobo’s three seasons in Fort Collins. The Rams have finished sixth in the Mountain West in scoring defense in each of the last three years. The outlook doesn’t get much better from a per-play basis. Colorado State gave up 5.8 a snap in 2015 but slipped to 6.1 in 2016 and 6.2 this fall. This unit has struggled to stop the run (182.8 per game), allowed 19 plays of 40 yards or more and ranks 10th in the Mountain West in third-down defense. Veteran play-caller Marty English is set to retire following this game, and the defense would like nothing more than to send him out on a high note.
In order to win this game, Marshall’s offense will have to be an extension of the defense. The Thundering Herd need to establish the line of scrimmage with Davis and King and control the clock to keep Colorado State’s high-powered offense on the sidelines. In three out of their last five games, the Rams surrendered at least 300 rushing yards. Needless to say, if Marshall eclipses 250 rushing yards on Saturday, Holliday’s team is likely to be taking the bowl trophy back to Huntington.
This stat is likely to determine just how close this matchup is on Saturday afternoon.
Marshall enters the New Mexico Bowl with a minus-six turnover margin and ranks 12th in Conference USA with 21 turnovers lost. Over the last five games, the Thundering Herd lost 13 turnovers. That’s a big reason why this team finished just 1-4 over their last five matchups. Colorado State is better in this department, as Bobo’s team is even in margin coming into Saturday’s game. However, of the Rams’ 16 lost turnovers, 10 of those took place in losses. In Colorado State’s seven victories, the turnover margin was plus-four. In the five losses, the Rams’ margin slipped to minus-four.
With Colorado State holding an edge on offense and overall big-play ability, a couple of mistakes by Marshall could be too much for Holliday’s team to overcome. But if the Thundering Herd can force a couple of takeaways and convert those into points, that’s one way to help counter the Stevens to Gallup connection, as well as the balanced attack coming to Albuquerque from Fort Collins.
Bowl games are all about motivation. Which team will be hungrier to end their late-season slide and take some hardware back to campus? Look for both teams to land their share of punches. Marshall will establish the run early, allowing Litton to connect on a few big passes to his receivers. However, Colorado State’s offensive firepower is just too much in the end. Stevens and Gallup connect on a couple of big plays in both halves, with the Rams using their ground attack to put this one way in the fourth quarter.