Marshall Thundering Herd (3-4, 2-1 C-USA) at Houston Cougars (6-0, 2-0 C-USA)
Kickoff: Saturday, October 22nd, 3:30 PM Central
The Line: Houston by 23.5
All-Time Series: Tied 1-1 (Cougars 1-0 in Houston)
Houston enters Saturday's game with an extra week to prepare for Marshall, coming off of a bye week. While the Cougars have won all six of their games this year, UH's most recent performance, a 56-3 dismantling of East Carolina, was the first game where they didn't have a glaring weakness to shore up moving forward.
The two weeks to game plan might not really be accurate, however. Up until this past weekend, Houston would have been looking at trying to stop a Marshall offense with drop-back passer Rakeem Cato under center. During the Herd's win over Rice on Saturday, they switched primarily to scrambler A.J. Graham.
Over the last few years, mobile quarterbacks have been the worst nightmare of Cougar defenses. But Sumlin brought in new linebackers coach Jamie Bryant this year, with one of his primary objectives being shoring up that aspect of Houston's D. The Coogs haven't given up a 100-yard rushing game to opposing QBs this year, and have allowed fewer than 50 rush yards to opposing quarterbacks every week since week one.
In his weekly press conference, Marshall coach Doc Holliday (yep, that's really his name) said that the staff would look to "take advantage of what both these kids can do", meaning we will likely see both Cato and Graham get some snaps.
But rotating quarterbacks isn't going to change the fact that Marshall isn't a team with a lot of talent on offense. They haven't scored more than 26 points in a game yet, and have reached the 20-point plateau just twice. Houston, on the other hand, has had a 20-point quarter in every game so far this year.
Nonetheless, Marshall has the confidence to enter every game feeling they have a chance to win. Their struggles on offense didn't prevent them from beating East Division favorites Southern Miss earlier this year, and didn't prevent them from knocking off Big East foe Louisville on the road. That's because of their big-play defense.
Marshall's basic defensive stats don't jump out at you - 4.0 yards allowed per carry, and 7.4 yards allowed per pass attempt puts them just barely on the good side of average. But their 17 turnovers forced lands them in the top 10 in the country, and their 67 tackles for a loss (led by defensive end Vinny Curry's 17) is not only the nation's best mark, it puts them nine ahead of second-place Illinois.
It will definitely be a match-up of strength vs strength, as you may have heard that the Cougars are pretty good on offense. Their 604 yards per game gives them better than a 50-yard advantage over second place. Their average of 436 passing yards per game makes them the only team above the 400 mark. And they've averaged just a hair under five yards per carry, to boot.
As for preventing those big plays, Houston has turned the ball over just eight times, putting them nationally in the top 25 in that category, and have been tackled for a loss less than five times per game, good for a top-30 mark in Division 1-A football.
Ultimately, while I respect Marshall's defensive unit, and I expect the Herd offense to do their best to run time off the clock and limit the number of possessions Houston gets, I would be surprised if the Cougars don't still find a way to score in the 30s, at least. And if that happens, not only would it be extremely uncharacteristic for Marshall's offense to manage enough points to stay close - dare I say it - it would be a huge letdown from what we have reason to expect of the Cougar defense, as well. Looking at the 23.5-point line, I think the Vegas oddsmakers have it about right.
And oh yeah. Do you think Cougar wide receiver Patrick Edwards might have the team a little bit fired up for this game? Let's just hope Marshall was smart enough to leave the band at home.