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2020 C-USA Championship Game Preview: UAB Blazers @ Marshall Thundering Herd

Marshall hosts UAB in search of its first C-USA title since 2014, while the Blazers look to lock up their second in three years.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 17 WKU at UAB Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

Time and Date: Friday, December 18 at 7:00 p.m. ET

Network: CBSSN

Location: Joan C. Edwards Stadium — Huntington, WV

Spread: Marshall (-4.5)

ESPN FPI: Marshall has 67.9% chance to win

All-time series: Marshall leads, 8-2

Last meeting: Marshall 23, UAB 18 — November 22, 2014

Considering both teams used to be annual rivals when sharing the C-USA East, it’s a bit surprising that the Thundering Herd and Blazers haven’t met in six seasons. The teams’ last meeting was between current head coaches Doc Holliday and Bill Clark, and Marshall won in a close affair. UAB’s program shut down a year later, and this will be the Thundering Herd’s first matchup against a revived Blazer program. Marshall rides a two game win streak in the series entering Friday’s championship showdown.


UAB Blazers outlook

No team in college football has been in action longer than UAB (5-3, 3-1 C-USA). The Blazers were the first FBS team to kick off their 2020 campaign, beginning action on Sept. 3. This is UAB’s 16th week of the season, yet the Blazers only have eight games under their belt.

Getting onto the field has been a struggle over the second half of the year, and UAB sat out the entire month of November and waited 42 days between its two most recent games. The December Blazers came back much more shorthanded than the October version of the team. Hovering around 40 scholarship players available, UAB traveled on the road to battle and up-and-coming Rice program. The Blazers came out rusty with a 13-7 deficit at halftime, but UAB refined its defense and sharpened its offense in the second half to clinch the C-USA title game, 21-16 — snapping a 2-game losing skid from the end of October.

Led by veteran head coach Bill Clark, the Blazers are now set to play in their third-straight title game, becoming the first team in C-USA history to do so. UAB last held the conference crown in 2018, and some of those major pieces still remain, including starting quarterback Tyler Johnston III and running back Spencer Brown.

Offensive veterans

UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston III has considerable C-USA Championship Game experience, and the junior is set to participate in his third. Johnston’s success on his deep passes last week was a primary reason UAB landed in this spot. He aired it out for 40+ yard gains on three occasions last week, with two of those throws resulting in touchdowns. Johnston spent half of the Blazers’ schedule nursing a shoulder injury, but backup Bryson Lucero held his ground during the starter’s extended absence. Whichever quarterback is in the backfield can rely on solid protection, as UAB’s offensive line is third in the nation at preventing sacks — allowing three through eight games.

When grounding it, the Blazers often turn to Spencer Brown, a living program legend as UAB’s all-time leader in rushing yards. The 2018 C-USA Championship Game MVP is third in the conference in total touchdowns this year, contributing 10 in a season for his third time in four years. But Brown will be tasked with his most difficult change yet — if he attains his season average of 92.5 yards per game, it will be 30 yards greater than any amount the Marshall defense has allowed to one player this season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 21 New Orleans Bowl - Appalachian State v UAB
UAB running back Spencer Brown is third in rushing yards and second in rushing TD in the C-USA.
Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UAB’s leading wideout Austin Watkins opted out of the season prior to the Blazers’ clinching game against Rice. The Blazers turned to a new crew of receivers last Saturday, led by Myron Mitchell. The new No. 1 receiver proved to have the makings of an effective deep threat by securing one catch for a 63-yard touchdown in the victory. However, Mitchell and fellow emerging receiver Trea Shropshire may be required to take on a greater role if UAB cannot establish the run.

Continuing defensive momentum

UAB, like most teams participating in conference championships this weekend, is solid on defense. The Blazers rank 15th in the country in yards allowed per game 33rd in scoring defense, improving both of those numbers after a masterful showing at Rice last week. The Blazers were extremely sharp in their front seven and they wreaked havoc with five sacks and 12 tackles for loss in the win.

Jordan Smith, a menacing 6’7” SAM linebacker, enters the conference championship fresh off of winning the C-USA Defensive Player of the Week. Smith comes in strong following a 2.5 sack performance and is the team’s best backfield invader. Through the secondary, UAB will have to rely on a strong showing from cornerback Brontae Harris, who is one of the harder hitting cornerbacks in the C-USA.


Marshall Thundering Herd outlook

Marshall (7-1, 4-1 C-USA) nearly had a perfect season and looked poised for the first undefeated C-USA regular season in the College Football Playoff era. The Thundering Herd conquered an early challenger in Appalachian State and rolled through their schedule, winding up at No. 15 in the AP Poll and No. 21 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Then, absolute calamity blindsided the Thundering Herd in a late-season trap game.

Marshall hosted a 1-2 Rice team and couldn’t budge the Owls’ defense. The Thundering Herd kept their defense on the field for roughly two-thirds of the game. Rice forced five interceptions, chewed up almost 40 minutes of clock time, and scored both of its touchdowns off of turnovers — including a game-changing pick-six. Marshall did not score a single point in a 20-0 shutout. The Thundering Herd have spent the last two weeks looking for answers and transforming that blemish into a positive. Although the outside New Year’s Six hopes have faded, Doc Holliday can still clinch the program’s first C-USA title since 2014.

The Thundering Herd earn the hosting duties due to a superior conference record. They played six of their eight games this season in Huntington, and all four games since Oct. 24 have transpired at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. The C-USA Championship Game will extend that streak to five.

Defensive dominance

Marshall is extremely dangerous due to exhibiting the best scoring defense in the country, and no opponent has posted more than 20 points on the Thundering Herd this year. They’re the only FBS team to allow fewer than 12 points per contest and one of two teams to yield under 260 yards per game. Marshall is especially effective in the box, specializing in blowing up opponents’ run games. Not a single player finished with more than 62 rushing yards on Marshall’s defense, a unit which held its opponent to below 90 collective yards on the ground in all seven wins.

Tavante Beckett is the leader of the defense as the ultimate run stopper. At outside linebacker, Beckett holds a team-high 77 tackles to lead off an impressive 2020 résumé which features 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four fumble recoveries, and two forced fumbles. Defensive end Darius Hodge can also be dangerous in the pass rush with a team-best 6.0 sacks on the season. The secondary has held firm too, ranking in the top 15 of the FBS in passing yards allowed per game while acting as one of seven teams to allow a weekly average of fewer than one passing touchdown.

Marshall v Florida Atlantic
Marshall OLB Tavante Beckett is a turnover machine, recovering three fumbles in a single game vs. WKU this season.
Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Remaining balanced

Offensively, the Thundering Herd present a well-balanced offense with redshirt freshman Grant Wells captaining the air attack and Brenden Knox leading the way on the ground. Aside from the 5-interception nightmare in his last outing, Wells’ freshman season has gone smoothly. He threw 16 touchdown passes compared to four interceptions in his first seven starts, starring in two games of 300+ yards and 4+ touchdowns.

The quarterback likes to distribute it evenly among his targets. Six Marshall receivers range from 14-27 receptions this season, while five have produced between 228 and 328 receiving yards. At the top with 328 is tight end Xavier Gaines. Frequently utilized as a wildcat quarterback in 2019, Gaines has remained more stagnant in the tight end role this season. Gaines demonstrates a strong set of hands and impressive ability to shed tackles, which allows him to overpower most safeties. Combine that with his respectable speed, and he becomes a frequent mismatch for opposing linebackers as well.

Wells’ passing is complemented in the run game by Knox, who won the C-USA MVP in 2019 for his rushing endeavors. Knox currently has averages of over 100 yards and one touchdown per game and sits on the doorstep of his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. With Brown lining up on the other side for UAB, this C-USA Championship will feature a great running back matchup between two of the most accomplished rushers in the conference.

Both Wells and Knox benefit from working behind one of the best offensive lines in college football. A name to watch in the trenches is All-American candidate Cain Madden at right guard. Madden is proficient in both facets of blocking and has yet to allow a single sack this season. When you factor in Madden and the other four, the line is cohesively strong and Marshall is tied for ninth in the FBS in fewest sacks allowed per game as a result.


Prediction

Both Marshall and UAB prefer to keep games on the lower-scoring end this year, so don’t expect a barrage of points in this one. Marshall’s offense will certainly rebound from that horrific performance against Rice. Grant Wells must revert to his first seven games in decision-making and Marshall will be set through the air. Brenden Knox against the UAB rushing defense also presents an interesting matchup. This feels like a physical game where Knox can get to 100 yards, but it may take 20 carries to do so.

On the other side, UAB’s defense is really going to have to crank it up a notch to score on Marshall. In their first action since Oct. 31, the Blazers looked lackluster offensively against Rice with the exception of Tyler Johnston’s deep ball. That will be the key to igniting UAB’s offense in this one, and the Blazers must keep Marshall honest in the run game in order to get its cornerbacks on islands downfield.

Even in Marshall’s one loss this season, its defense still performed at its typical standard. The success of that elite unit is what will determine the 2020 C-USA Championship Game.

Prediction: Marshall 24, UAB 13