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Will Marshall's Perfect Season Be Spoiled by WKU?

Marshall (11-0, 7-0) will host Western Kentucky (6-5, 3-4) on Friday in Huntington, WV.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the Thundering Herd host the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers with a perfect regular season and the chance to host the C-USA title game on the line for the Herd. Rakeem Cato and company are coming off their worst performance of the year against UAB, where the offense was held to 17 points and failed to score in the second half. Western Kentucky, meanwhile, has won three straight and is fighting for a bowl spot in the conference.

Keys for the Herd (by Patrick Sparks)

1)Stifling Defense – Western Kentucky brings in the nation’s second-leading passer Brandon Doughty, who will take the passing yardage lead with only 20 yards against the Herd. If teams have tried to drop 6 defensive backs in coverage, Western has been able to give the ball to C-USA’s third leading rusher Leon Allen to the tune of over 1,200 yards. So far this year, Marshall has had the best defense in Conference USA, giving up only 16.5 points per game. Since the second half of the Florida Atlantic game, Marshall has been able to hold their opponent’s offense to either some short field touchdowns or against the second teamers, like with Rice. Something has to give, but Marshall needs sure tackling from Neville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes from the linebacking corps and AJ Leggett and Taj Letman have to be able to defend the middle of the field against this passing attack.

2)Rakeem Cato – Jeff Brohm said in his press conference, "We’re gonna have to make them throw the ball more than they want." Yes, Jeff Brohm said this about a quarterback who has thrown for over 13,000 yards and 119 touchdowns in his career. With 103 yards on Saturday, Cato will go over 3,000 yards for the season. The Hilltopper defense has done very little to inspire confidence in their pass defense. While they have played better the past two weeks, both UTSA and Army seem to be content in trying to run the ball. If Cato gets time and doesn’t try to force anything, he can carve up this defense.

3)Rockhead’s Running – Devon Johnson has been a dominant force on the ground. He has 9 100-yard rushing games in the 10 games he has played and has totaled 1,573 yards on the ground. With three games remaining, it’s not far-fetched that Johnson will go over 2,000 yards on the season. Teams have tried to sell out against the run. While teams might have some success in limiting his big plays, he always seems to look like he’s just about to break one, and almost every game, he does break one. Western has to be able to tackle in space to limit Johnson’s production.

4)Focus – Marshall has finally reached the Committee’s top 25 rankings, but this has not come without some controversy. Even though Marshall reached #24, they were right behind fellow Group of 5 school, Boise State. The Herd seemed to try to force everything last week against UAB, albeit an inspired UAB team, but Marshall truly struggled for the first time this year. Now, with a win clinching the host site for the title game in Huntington and, according to Jeff Long, with Marshall having the capability to move up if they keep winning, Marshall cannot look past Western Kentucky and has to play a clean game.

Prediction: Marshall 42 WKU 28

Keys for the Hilltoppers (by Andrew Thomas)

1)Believe – Marshall has crushed many of its opponents so far in its 11-0 season; their average margin of victory is 28.45 points. Many of those wins have come against opponents quite familiar to Western Kentucky. Marshall’s closest game of the season came against UAB last week, where senior quarterback Rakeem Cato led the Herd to a five point victory late in the game. Hopefully WKU head coach Jeff Brohm and his team were able to see that this 11-0 Conference USA giant can stumble, and maybe even lose. Brohm’s Hilltoppers have struggled on the road this season (1-4), but have been in almost every one of those games. Senior quarterback Brandon Doughty will need to have his high-scoring offense confident as ever when they travel to West Virginia to face the Herd.

2)Balance – What more can be said about this WKU offense? Doughty leads the conference in passing yards, the offense is ranked 8th in the country with 42 points per game, and running back Leon Allen set a conference record when rushed for over 300 yards two weeks ago against Army. The only potential issue I see with this offense is balance. Although Allen carried the Hilltoppers two weeks ago, he only saw fourteen carries for 68 yards last week against UTSA. Brandon Doughty has been more than capable of carrying his team this season, but can offensive coordinator Tyson Helton turn to Allen if things turn sour in Huntington on Friday against a Herd defense that is only allowing 17 points per contest? In their last loss against Louisiana Tech in which Doughty threw a season-high four interceptions, Helton seemed hesitant to turn to his run game as his senior quarterback continued to struggle. Helton may need to balance his notoriously pass-first offense on Saturday with the run game if he wants any chance at spoiling Marshall’s perfect season.

3)Defensive effort – This WKU defense hasn’t been perfect in 2014. In fact, it’s been far from it: giving up nearly 37 points per game. It has, however, stepped up a few times this season and earned a victory for the Hilltoppers. Facing a red-hot, versatile Marshall Offense, the Hilltoppers will need to attack for all four quarters and force the Herd into making some bad decisions. I’ve learned not to expect a great performance from this defense, but defensive coordinator Nick Holt knows he needs some extra effort on Friday afternoon.

Prediction: Marshall 51 WKU 38

Game Information

12:00 PM ET, November 28, 2014

Joan C. Edwards Stadium, Huntington, WV

41°F / 32°F -- Precip: 0%

TV: FOX Sports 1