— By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The battle of head coaches might be as interesting as the one between the teams when Marshall (4-2, 2-1) hosts Florida Atlantic (3-3, 1-1) in a Conference USA East Division battle Saturday afternoon at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The Herd’s Homecoming game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. and it’s being shown nationally on Facebook Live.
Marshall’s head coach, Doc Holliday, is in his ninth season in Huntington and he’s led the Herd to a conference title and five bowl wins since taking the job. Before leading the Herd, Holliday was considered one of the nation’s top assistant coaches, with work at his alma mater West Virginia as well as stops at North Carolina State and Florida.
Florida Atlantic’s second-year head coach is the well-traveled Lane Kiffin, who has head coaching stops in both the NFL (Oakland Raiders) and at big-time college programs (Tennessee and Southern California).
Kiffin was also the offensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban prior to taking the FAU job.
Holliday and Kiffin lead what many consider the two most talented teams in Conference USA and they’re coming off memorable 2017 seasons.
Holliday’s 2017 team rebounded from a poor 2016 campaign with an eight-win season and a New Mexico Bowl victory, while Kiffin led FAU to the Conference USA title and a Boca Raton Bowl win in his first season.
The teams come into Saturday’s matchup needing a win to stay in the Conference USA East Division race, now led by Florida International, which is 2-0 in league play.
Holliday knows the Herd faces a major challenge in slowing the Owls, who feature the top running back in C-USA in junior Devin Singletary, as well as one of the top defenders in senior linebacker Azeez Al-Shair.
“They have tremendous talent on both sides of the ball,” Holliday said. “It is going to be a challenge for us that I know our kids are looking forward to and, of course, our fans as well.
“I know it will be a great atmosphere here on Saturday afternoon.”
Kiffin is equally as concerned about Marshall’s talent level and veteran presence on both sides of the ball.
“These guys are arguably the most talented guys we see all year in conference and they have a lot of really good looking players again,” Kiffin said. “These guys last year held us, I assume, to the least points and yards in the conference of any of our games and now we have to go on the road to play them, so we will have our hands full.”
FAU beat Marshall last year in Boca Raton, Fla., by a 30-25 score in a game in which the Herd was plagued by turnovers and 275 all-purpose yards by Singletary.
Marshall has dominated the all-time series with four wins in five games and the Owls have never won in Huntington.
The key to a Marshall win this week may rest with the defense, which will be asked to slow Singletary. Last week, Marshall’s run defense was strong in a 42-20 win at Old Dominion.
“Singletary is a tremendous back and you’ll probably see him in the NFL next season,” Holliday said. “We will have to do a great job at getting hats on him, wrapping him up and getting multiple guys to him because he’s a hard guy to bring down.”
Kiffin has similar concerns as Marshall’s run game has exploded in the last two weeks behind a veteran offensive line and standout performances by sophomore back Tyler King, who has averaged about 160 yards per game in the team’s last two contests.
King was also aided by senior Anthony Anderson’s three touchdown runs against ODU.
“They got their run game on track last week, running the ball over 300 yards in the game, so this is a big challenge for us,” Kiffin said.
Marshall’s run game could become even more formidable with the expected return of senior back Keion Davis, who missed the last two games after suffering a late game injury in the Herd’s win at Western Kentucky.
The Herd is also getting improved play from junior transfer quarterback Alex Thomson, who had a solid game both passing and running in the ODU win. Thomson replaced Marshall’s early season starter, redshirt freshman Isaiah Green, who suffered a leg injury at the end of the Western Kentucky win.
Holliday expects Thomson’s growth to continue against the Owls.
“I told you last week that we started to see him settle in during the Middle Tennessee game,” Holliday said. “I thought in that game (ODU) he got even better and I expect him to be even better this week.”