Entering game six of the 2019 season, Marshall and Old Dominion aren’t enjoying the starts they envisioned, but Saturday’s C-USA East matchup is about erasing the previous weeks and starting anew.
The Thundering Herd dropped their conference opener to Middle Tennessee, 24-13, being held scoreless for the final 3.5 quarters on the road. For the second-consecutive week, the offense looked listless, failing to cure the mishaps from the 52-14 loss to Cincinnati in Huntington — a loss which becomes more excusable as the Bearcats rise into the AP Poll, but Marshall trailed 45-0 heading into the fourth quarter.
Marshall (2-3, 0-1 C-USA) dropped 56 in its opener against an FCS opponent, but the offense has been unable to build on that performance. While the defense has produced solid outings, such as limiting Boise State to 14 points on the blue turf, the Herd’s 95th ranked scoring offense hasn’t been able to reach the end zone much this year.
The same issue is present in Norfolk, Virginia. Old Dominion (1-4, 0-1 C-USA) is operating the fifth worst scoring offense in the FBS, and only Miami (OH) is producing fewer yards per game. The Monarchs are riding a four-game losing streak after knocking off their FCS foe. Two of those losses were to the ACC Commonwealth Cup teams, falling by 14 to Virginia Tech and 11 to a ranked Virginia squad. But keeping road games close against ACC opponents wasn’t a sign of things to come for Old Dominion. Instead, the Monarchs managed 24 combined points in home losses to East Carolina and WKU.
The game in Huntington is about redemption and remaining in the division race, as the C-USA East remains open. WKU currently appears to have a stranglehold on the division with a 3-0 record, but the Hilltoppers demonstrated their vulnerability by losing to an FCS team on Week 1, and they have Charlotte, Marshall, Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss, and Middle Tennessee awaiting on the conference schedule.
Marshall’s offense hasn’t played at the level it needs to in order to claim the East for the first time since Rakeem Cato led the third-ranked scoring offense to a 13-1 record and conference title. But quarterback Isaiah Green is a capable playmaker, and flashes of his abilities were shown last week. He achieved a season-high 365 yards through the air, while running for a career-best 95. Mistakes — specifically three interceptions and a fumble — prevented Green and the Herd from scoring a second half touchdown.
Without wide receiver Tyre Brady, Green’s been forced to work with a younger, developing group at receiver. No player on Marshall has more than 170 receiving yards this season, and the Thundering Herd have struggled moving the ball deep. But a vital piece of the offense is utility player Xavier Gaines. A highly-touted dual-threat quarterback recruit in 2016, Gaines has scored three touchdowns and produced more than 200 yards from scrimmage while lining up in several different positions with the offense.
The Herd’s running game has potential to cause damage, as long as Brenden Knox is taking handoffs. The sophomore halfback was vital in Marshall’s most-recent win, a Week 3 back-and-forth against former MAC rival Ohio, and Knox’s 133 yards sparked Marshall’s offense to its strongest performance against an FBS opponent this season. Knox has been forced to carry a greater load in the backfield since the dismissal of co-starting running back Tyler King after the second week of the season. Since, Knox is averaging nearly 94 rushing yards per contest.
Marshall’s offensive problems last week didn’t involve the inability to move the ball, but that’s the issue Old Dominion is facing at the moment. The Monarchs generated just 163 yards of offense on WKU in Norfolk, held to 1.8 yards per rushing attempt and 3.9 per passing attempt in a 20-3 loss.
Blake LaRussa, the catalyst behind Old Dominion’s historic 2018 upset over Virginia Tech, stepped away from football this offseason, leaving JUCO transfer Stone Smartt as the successor. Smartt is completing around 59% of his passes this season, averaging 158.8 passing yards per game. But his 1:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio is an area he can improve on as he gains more experience at the FBS level. Smartt also needs more time to gain comfort in the pocket, but Old Dominion is allowing 3.8 sacks per game, the fifth-worst mark in college football.
No wide receiver has more than 100 yards for the Monarchs this year, but they are equipped well in the rushing game. Smartt is a mobile quarterback himself, with 157 yards and a team-high five touchdowns this season — and that yardage number would skyrocket without the litany of sacks. Running backs Kesean Strong and Lala Davis have been the engine of the offense this year, with 320 combined rushing yards between the two. Strong is also the number one target through the air this season, holding 18 receptions and 133 receiving yards to his name.
Defensively, these teams do plenty of things well, even against ranked opponents. Throwing away the Thundering Herd’s disastrous 52-14 loss to Cincinnati, Marshall is allowing just 21.5 points per game. Marshall allowed Boise State to just two touchdowns on the road, while Old Dominion limited Virginia to only a touchdown in the first half in Charlottesville. The Monarchs’ scoring defense ranks in the upper half of college football, and the unit especially excels at stopping the run, a facet in which they are the 21st-best at in the FBS. Ranked 27th in total yards allowed per game, only Miami (FL) has a losing record and yields fewer per game.
Old Dominion frequently causes havoc in the turnover department, but Marshall has struggled getting takeaways this year. Five different Monarchs have corralled an interception and five different Monarchs have forced a fumble this year.
With these teams’ defenses frequently showing up this season, turnovers will play an increased role in determining the outcome, similar to Marshall’s last outing against Middle Tennessee. A coveted first conference win remains on the line when these foes meet in Huntington on Saturday afternoon.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 12 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Location: Joan C. Edwards Stadium — Huntington, WV
Spread: Marshall (-16)
ESPN FPI: Marshall has 89.8% chance to win
All-time series: Marshall leads, 4-1
Last meeting: Marshall 42, Old Dominion 20 — October 13, 2018
Every time Marshall and Old Dominion have met, Doc Holliday and Bobby Wilder have been the head coaches. The Monarchs’ lone win was in 2016. Thus, Marshall is looking for its third-straight win.
Marshall has had its struggles this season, but the Thundering Herd are still the clear favorite over the Monarchs. If Isaiah Green avoids turnovers from the Middle Tennessee game, Marshall’s offense could present a typically stout Old Dominion defense problems. Add Brenden Knox’s ability to shed tackles and create extra yardage, and the Herd can produce an offense which will be difficult for the Monarchs to match.
Still, this one stays on the lower scoring front, but Marshall improves to .500 and remains in contention for the C-USA East division title.
Prediction: Marshall 27, Old Dominion 13