Time and Date: Saturday, October 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Network: Stadium (https://watchstadium.com)
Location: Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium — Bowling Green, KY
Spread: Marshall (-7)
ESPN FPI: Marshall 78.8% chance to win
All-time series: Marshall leads 7-4 (series tied 3-3 since both teams joined FBS ranks)
Last meeting: Marshall 26, WKU 23 — October 26, 2019
With the series tied at three apiece since becoming C-USA rivals, Saturday’s matchup in Bowling Green, KY determines which program has the advantage in the Moonshine Throwdown.
Marshall (2-0) formerly held a coveted AP Poll position before the entrance of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams into the rankings. They may have lost the number next to their name, but the Herd have yet to lose a game. It’s been nearly a month since they took the field in a nationally televised Sep. 19 matchup against Appalachian State, so Saturday’s conference opener cannot come soon enough for Doc Holliday’s team.
Meanwhile, WKU (1-2) enters in a more-consistent rhythm having played three of the past four weeks. The Hilltoppers struggled out of the gate this season but staved off Middle Tennessee in a defensive battle last Saturday to secure their first victory of 2020.
Previewing the Marshall Thundering Herd
Steve Helwick: In the noon slot on opening Saturday, quarterback Grant Wells threw four touchdowns in a half while making his first collegiate start. He eclipsed 300 passing yards while completing 70% of his attempts in the rout over Eastern Kentucky. Wells didn’t experience the same success against a forceful Appalachian State defense. His numbers dropped to 11/25, 163 yards, and one interception, but he still delivered several key throws in the 17-7 victory. He launched a deep spiral downfield to tight end Xavier Gaines for a gain of 67 late in the third quarter — a play that would set Marshall ahead by multiple scores for the remainder of the contest.
Marshall doesn’t design runs for Wells, but he is a serviceable threat when escaping the pocket. This season, he averages over six yards per rush on 12 attempts (which includes the two sacks he’s taken). Still, the rushing game for the Thundering Herd is dominated by the 2019 C-USA MVP, Brenden Knox. Knox has proven to be a high-stamina, workhorse running back and the usage doesn’t faze him. He has rushed for four yards per carry and 100 yards each time he’s been given 25 or more handoffs.
Marshall’s other key playmaker on the offense sometimes lines up at quarterback, or running back, or really in any skill position, but he primarily plays tight end. That would be former 4-star recruit Xavier Gaines, who hauled in the 67-yard reception against Appalachian State. The 6’3” senior is averaging over 23 yards per catch this season. He’s too fast for many linebackers he faces and outsizes many defensive backs, allowing him to be a versatile threat on Marshall’s offense.
While the Thundering Herd offense is loaded in weapons, the defense was the unit which spurred the upset over Appalachian State. Marshall’s defense forced two takeaways and recorded three sacks against the Mountaineers. Despite Appalachian State entering Huntington with a wealth of capable running backs, Marshall’s front seven was instrumental in holding the team to under 100 yards rushing at a combined 2.9 yards per carry.
The standout behind the Herd’s defensive success was outside linebacker Tavante Beckett. A First Team All-C-USA selection in 2019, Beckett has been the commander of stopping the run. His team-high 24 tackles combined with a forced fumble make him poised for a strong showing against WKU’s 23rd percentile rushing offense.
WKU quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome has been sacked seven times through three games this season. Marshall can contribute to the Hilltoppers’ offensive line woes by way of Darius Hodge. The strong-side defensive end ranks first on the Herd with 2.5 sacks this season and is the program’s record holder for most sacks recorded in a game (4.5 last season vs. Old Dominion).
Previewing the WKU Hilltoppers
Joe Londergan: As my colleague said, the Tops have had some issues protecting Pigrome, which hasn’t made his transition to QB1 at WKU the easiest. Coming off a season where Ty Storey was a bit of a game manager, but exactly what the Tops needed at the time, it’s taking Tyson Helton a bit to figure things out in 2020.
That being said, the Tops do have some momentum going into this game. They were unable to keep Asher O’Hara from being his usual dual-threat self against MTSU, but still secured the win. In the previous two games against Liberty and Louisville, they really struggled to get the defense off the field on third down.
They’re having a bit of trouble staying on the field on third down as well. They’ve converted just 35.9% of their third down chances. That number will have to be significantly higher in order to keep pace with the aforementioned offensive talent on Marshall’s roster.
Steve Helwick: The Moonshine Throwdown series currently belongs to Marshall, winners of three-straight. The Thundering Herd are touchdown favorites, and I expect them to be laser-focused on picking apart WKU after an extended and expected rest.
The Hilltoppers struggled to contain Liberty’s rushing attack in their second game of the season and allowed 354 total yards on the ground. Given the threat Brenden Knox presents, the All-C-USA running back should comfortably top 100 yards and manage a touchdown or two in this one. On the other side of the ball, Marshall is best if Doc Holliday makes limiting the mobility of Pigrome a priority. Pigrome doesn’t make too many errant throws under pressure and has yet to throw an interception in 2020, so preventing him from a dominant rushing game is the most important factor for Marshall’s defense.
Marshall will maintain an undefeated record, but the Thundering Herd probably still find themselves outside of the polls after jumping to a 3-0 start.
Prediction: Marshall 38, WKU 17
Joe Londergan: I expect to see a bit of a closer game than my colleague.
Both teams will play to their strengths, but Marshall’s offense is simply firing faster than WKU’s at this point. I expect the combo of Wells, Gaines, and Knox to have a decent day, but the common thread in all of WKU’s games so far has been mobile quarterbacks. As Wells doesn’t quite fit that mold, I expect WKU to have a better day defensively than they have been.
That being said. There’s simply too much talent and momentum on Marshall’s side to ignore.
Prediction: Marshall 27, WKU 21