The First Annual "Sonny Allen Bowl"
The Virginias will go to war for the first time in Conference USA this Saturday in Norfolk, airing at 12 EST on FSN. This will be the first matchup between former basketball coach Sonny Allen's alma mater (Marshall) and a school at which he was a hall of fame coach (Old Dominion). Yeah, I understand that it is a stretch, but there isn't much here in the first ever meeting. Then again, there isn't much fire needed to rile up combatants between the Commonwealth and West By God, By Damn Virginia.
Three Monarchs to Watch
Taylor Heinicke - Every discussion about ODU has to begin with their star quarterback, Heinicke. He is averaging over 300 yards per game, has a completion percentage of 66.5%, and is tied for the C-USA lead in passing touchdowns at 14. The key for the Herd against Heinicke is pressure. Despite the yardage put up and the touchdowns he has thrown, Heinicke has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the conference (12) and has thrown the most interceptions in the conference (7). Doc Holliday said in his weekly press conference "when he gets in trouble, is number one he can beat you with his feet and his eyes are constantly down the field."
Antonio Vaughan - The undersized receiver leads Conference USA in receiving touchdowns, hauling in half of Heinicke's passing touchdowns. Vaughan had his first 100-yard game of the season against MTSU, adding 3 touchdowns. Old Dominion has utilized Vaughan in the passing game (27 receptions, 385 yards, 7 TDs), the running game (5 rushes, 29 yards, 5.8 ypc), and the punt return game (6 punt returns, 100 yards, 1 TD). Vaughan has accounted for 8 total touchdowns through the first 5 games, and has completed a pass for 34 yards. Bobby Wilder will try to get the ball in his playmakers' hands in any way possible.
Zach Paschal - Along with Vaughan, Doc Holliday praised Paschal as an NFL-caliber receiver. Paschal is having his breakout season, less than 100 yards away from surpassing career highs in receiving yards and half way to matching his career high in receiving touchdowns. Paschal leads Conference USA in both receptions and yardage through the first 5 weeks of the season. While he may not have the versatility of Vaughan, Paschal presents a size matchup problem on the outside for the Marshall corners.
Three Sons of Marshall to Watch
Devon Johnson - The "Thunder" in the "Thunder and Lightning" backfield has emerging as one of the nation's hardest backs to bring down. After moving from tight end to running back, the 6'1", 240-lb. Johnson is 2nd in Conference USA in both yards and yards per carry. Johnson has carried to majority of the load in the Herd backfield, surpassing 100 yards in 3 of Marshall's 4 games and rushing for 91 yards in the 4th game. With the Monarchs having given up over 240 yards on the ground in 3 of 5 games this year, including 280 each of the last two weeks against Rice and Middle Tennessee, Johnson and the rest of C-USA's leading rushing attack will look to have a big day on the ground.
Eric Frohnapfel - The 6'7" Virginia native can provide a matchup nightmare in middle of the field for linebackers as a receiver, or he can stay in to help spring "Thunder & Lightning" into the second level of the defense. In the passing game, Frohnapfel is already nearing career numbers in receiving yards and receptions and has already matched receiving touchdowns. With inside corners having to focus on leading receiver Tommy Shuler in the underneath routes and Davonte Allen and Angelo Jean-Louis, both with the ability to take the top off of a defense, Frohnapfel can provide a safety valve to Rakeem Cato when the rest of his receivers are covered downfield.
AJ Leggett/Taj Letman - While these may be a cheating answer, the two Marshall safeties have each accounted for 2 interceptions a piece, with one every game between the two of them. With Old Dominion wanting to stretch the field, Heinicke leading the conference in interceptions, and both safeties even the size advantage of Zach Paschal, expect bracket coverage over the top and some ball hawking from these two throughout the game.
This will be the most difficult test for Marshall so far. Old Dominion has the personnel to put of points on anyone in the conference, and will likely do so against a Marshall secondary that has yet to be truly tested by a pass heavy attack and a quarterback the caliber of Taylor Heinicke. However, with a suspect defense on Old Dominion's side, I expect a good ol' fashioned shootout, and it's hard to pick against a guy called Doc Holliday in a shootout. Marshall has a balanced attack that can beat people on the ground and through the air and a defense that lives on forcing turnovers and a "bend, but don't break" mentality. With Old Dominion giving up 237 yards on the ground per game against 4 FBS opponents and Marshall having 3 of the 4 running backs with the highest yards per carry in the conference (Watson, Johnson, and Butler), anticipate a close game through 3 quarters, but Marshall will be able to separate themselves late for the win.
Marshall 45 - Old Dominion 35