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How The Moonshine Throwdown Became A Premier Rivalry In Conference USA

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Western Kentucky and Marshall gave Conference USA the marquee game it desperately needed two years ago and it has now blossomed to a great rivalry.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Marshall Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Before November 28, 2014, Marshall fans saw the Western Kentucky football program as just another football team in the way of their glorious undefeated season.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Although the game was placed on Rivalry Week by Conference USA, Marshall fans pretty much laughed at the thought of a relatively new FBS program being worthy of their hatred. That type of emotion was reserved for West Virginia and West Virginia only.

Western Kentucky? A rival? No way!

Who could blame their arrogance. The Marshall brand has carried weight in the Appalachian region long before WKU was in the FBS and in 2014 the block M draped in green and white was on the college football map yet again. The Herd were on cusp of one of the biggest stages in college football.

CUSA Football Championship - Louisiana Tech v Marshall Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Marshall entered the game ranked 24th and was in the discussion to be the first G5 team to appear in the New Year’s Six Bowl behind the play of star quarterback Rakeem Cato.

In 2014 they boasted one of the best offenses in the country and were virtually untouchable at home, winning by an average of 28.4 points per game at home that year and in the midst of a 13-game winning streak at the Joan.

Western Kentucky entered the game featuring an explosive offense under first year head coach Jeff Brohm but they were a mere afterthought with a 6-5 record. They were a 24-point underdog and were expected to be an unwelcome visitor in a celebration of another historical feat by the Marshall football program.

Tensions were high before the game started as players got into a bit of a scrum during pregame warmups. Although not dubbed a rivalry at the time, you got the feeling that real animosity existed between the two teams.

One itching for respect. One trying to dismiss the notion they should get any.

History took place that evening. Just not the history Marshall expected. In a 67-66 double overtime classic, Western Kentucky would ruin Marshall’s bid for a fourth undefeated season in school history and a shot to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl.

Rather than go for the tie, Brohm decided to go for the win and it paid off as Brandon Doughty would connect with Willie McNeal for the game-winning two-point conversion to propel Western Kentucky to one of their biggest wins in school history.

Western Kentucky v Marshall Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A league that had been left for dead after conference realignment had not just the game of the week. But the game of the year.

The game between Marshal and WKU featured 15 combined TD passes, an FBS record. A Marshall defense that was the best in C-USA allowed a school-record 738 yards.

Although Marshall would go on to win the conference title the following week over Louisiana Tech, WKU sent a message with their win.

The Tops were here to stay.

A year later the message was loud and clear. WKU would dethrone Marshall on the way to winning their first Conference USA Championship. The Tops became the first ever team to run the table during conference play and win the championship.

This year Western Kentucky has a chance to be the first team since East Carolina (2008-2009) to win two straight C-USA Championships and be the first team to make two straight C-USA Championship Game appearances since Marshall in 2013-2014.

CUSA Championship - Southern Miss v Western Kentucky Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Standing in their way to accomplish that feat will be none other than Marshall this Saturday night in Huntington, West Virginia.

WKU enters this game as a heavy favorite against a struggling 3-8 Marshall team. But we’ve been here before and know better than to assume an easy WKU win. Just two years ago the roles were reversed.

For the third straight year this matchup will have the division title on the line when these two teams take the field.

Although Marshall is in a down year they have recruited well enough to assume that this season is a blip, not a trend. WKU has proven that their success is not relied upon a single coach should Brohm leave for another job or player as noted by their success after Brandon Doughty. In the coming years this game appears to be exactly what C-USA hoped it would be.

Meaningful.

In the newly configured Conference USA the league desperately needed a yearly marquee matchup to develop between the traditional G5 power steeped in tradition Marshall Thundering Herd, and a upstart program at the FBS level looking to make a name for themselves on the big stage in the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

It got one.

Welcome to The Moonshine Throwdown.