This weekend, C-USA's two best teams meet at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, the first conference title game in the stadium since 2002. 8-4 Louisiana Tech will be visiting 11-1 Marshall on Saturday. Both Marshall and Louisiana Tech have been two of the nation's most potent offenses, but have also been somewhat inconsistent on defense. Both teams had a somewhat inexplicable overtime loss late, with Marshall dropping the regular season finale in overtime to Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech losing at Old Dominion in their second-to-last regular season game.
Marshall steamrolled through the first 10 games of their schedule in all three phases of the game with a 30-point margin of victory, but in the last two games, one phase of their game failed the Herd. This year's Thundering Herd have been the 2nd most balanced offense in the nation, with only a 31 yard differential between their rushing and passing totals for the year (3,462 yards rushing, 3,433 yards passing).
The primary reason for this has been the emergence of Devon Johnson at running back to lead Conference USA in rushing with over 1,600 yards. However, against UAB, Marshall's offense disappeared in the second half, but a late strip sack won the game.
The Herd defense had been the best unit in Conference USA, until last weekend, when the passing attack of Western Kentucky blitzed the Marshall corners for 67 points.. This weekend, a Bulldog offense that similarly favors the pass will test this Marshall defense.
For the Bulldogs, the later in the year it became, the better they started to look. Louisiana Tech made it to the conference title game with a 76-31 win over Rice in their regular season finale, but the Bulldogs have shown some inconsistencies, with losses to Old Dominion and FCS Northwestern State.
Former Marshall co-OC and quarterback Tony Petersen has opened up the Bulldog offense with Cody Sokol throwing for over 3,000 yards and Kenneth Dixon rushing for over 1,000 yards. If Louisiana Tech wants to have success on offense, Sokol needs to protect the football, throwing at least 1 interception in 10 of their 12 games and 3 interceptions in the Bulldogs' loss to Northwestern State.
Tech Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz has come in and improved the Bulldog defense. While Marshall's defense leads the conference in scoring, the Bulldog defense leads the conference in yards per game given up, primarily on the strength of their run defense. The ball-hawking Bulldog secondary leads the nation with 24 interceptions.The Bulldogs' defensive improvement has been so great that Diaz's name has once again resurfaced as a serious P5 defensive coordinator after an abysmal run at Texas.
Players to Watch
Cody Sokol - After watching Tony Petersen's work and play-calling with Rakeem Cato during his time as co-offensive coordinator at Marshall, it's easy to see what Sokol will do. The run offense will keep the pressure off him in full, but he will throw a good bit in the intermediate passing game and let his receivers make plays in space, especially against a Marshall pass defense fresh off giving up 491 yards and 8 passing touchdowns to Brandon Doughty. While Sokol isn't Doughty by any stretch of the imagination, he knows that there are spots in this defense to pick on.
Steward Butler - With the status of Devon Johnson uncertain, Butler may have to step up and take some of the pressure off Rakeem Cato. While the Bulldog run defense has been the strength of their defense, Marshall's offense does not move the ball well when they become one-dimensional in either aspect of the game. If Johnson cannot go, Butler and Remi Watson will have to pick up the slack to keep the Marshall offense moving.
Both of these teams have been somewhat inconsistent all year. The question becomes, which team shows up for either of these schools. Marshall is looking avenge last year's embarrassing conference title game loss at Rice. Louisiana Tech has somewhat an advantage with their offensive coordinator knowing a great deal about a majority of the Herd team's personnel and offensive scheming, though he never worked with Chuck Heater.
With the status of Devon Johnson uncertain, Marshall will have to look to their back up running backs to perform like they did in the Southern Miss and Western Kentucky games and hope Rakeem Cato can't protect the football against this Bulldog defense.
After last week's performance by both these teams, this could end up being one of this weekend's best conference championship games as Marshall tries to make up for last weekend's abysmal defensive performance and Louisiana Tech hopes to continue their dominant ways after romping Rice. I think, with a rainy forecast in Huntington and the status of their best offensive player uncertain, Marshall might have an uphill battle this weekend.
Louisiana Tech 38 - Marshall 35