— By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A possible preview of the Conference USA Football championship game is on tap in Huntington Friday night as the conference’s East Division leader, Marshall, hosts West Division leader Louisiana Tech.
The game kicks off at 7 p.m., at Joan C. Edwards Stadium and will be shown nationally by CBS Sports Network.
Marshall (6-3, 4-2) is coming off its second bye week of the 2019 season following a 20-7 win at Rice on Nov. 2, the Herd’s fourth straight win.
Tech (8-1, 5-0) won its eighth straight game last Saturday, a 52-17 home victory over North Texas, the West Division preseason favorite.
The teams have met only twice and the series is tied at a win apiece.
The last time Marshall and Louisiana Tech met was in the 2014 Conference USA championship game in Huntington, a 26-23 Marshall win thanks to a winning field goal by Justin Haig.
Marshall is hoping to have a better rebound from its latest off week after losing games to Cincinnati and Middle Tennessee following a break in late Sept.
“I think it was great because we have a chance to get some guys back and healthy,” Herd head coach Doc Holliday said. “We have guys who have played a lot of snaps who were able to take a couple of days and that will help them. We should have everyone at 100 percent and ready to roll here come Friday night.”
Another key factor for Marshall is the emotional boost the Herd seems to get each season for the game which takes place near the Nov. 14 anniversary of the Marshall football plane crash in 1970, which resulted in the loss of 75 lives and near-extinction of the MU football program.
Marshall will wear black uniforms this week in honor of the 1970 team as well as helmets with the number 75 on one side and the 1970 team logo on the other side.
“They understand what this game means to the program and the preparation that it takes to go play this game,” Holliday said. “As coaches, we understand it. From the time these kids come in here as freshmen, the first thing that we do is educate them on what the history of this program is all about. Thank goodness nobody else has our story. It’s unique.
“I think it’s important that anyone who plays here understands how important this football team is and what it means to the community, the fan base and the school. We try to do everything we can to make sure our kids know how important football is to this community and our fan base.”
Louisiana Tech has been on an impressive roll since a season-opening 45-14 loss at Texas. The Bulldogs’ record is spotless since and the eight-game winning streak is currently the sixth-longest in FBS.
Tech’s offense gets most of the attention, an attack led by fifth-year senior quarterback J’Mar Smith, who will be starting his 36th consecutive game on Friday night.
He has nearly 2,500 passing yards this season with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. Smith is second in Conference USA in total offense and passing yards.
Junior running back Justin Henderson (712 yards and 14 TDs) and four productive receivers — senior Malik Stanley, juniors Cee Jay Powell and Adrian Hardy and sophomore Griffin Hebert — also key the offense.
Seventh-year Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz says his team’s success can be attributed to work in all phases.
“Well, we’ve scored a lot of points, but we’re ranked pretty high up there in defensive touchdowns,” Holtz said. “We’ve scored some touchdowns on special teams and defense, but I think having the depth of the offensive line has been huge in that regard. Guys just continue to stand up and play well for us.”
Holliday simply considers the Bulldogs a well-rounded team.
“With them, it starts with the quarterback but the running back is extremely physical,” Holliday said. “They’re huge up front and have skilled guys at the wide receiver position. Defensively, they tackle well in space and have guys up front who can play. That’s why they are who they are.”
Holtz says he is preparing his team for what might be its toughest challenge of the season so far.
“They are always physical and tough,” Holtz said. “They are built to run the ball with their offensive formations. They have big, strong, physical running backs. They play with three tight ends. They do some really good things in the running game and play very physical football.
“Same thing defensively when you look at them. They are a very aggressive group defensively. I think Brad (Lambert) does a nice job with that group. He’s a great defensive football coach. We know it’s going to be one heck of a challenge.”
This week has been unseasonably cold in Huntington, although game-time temperatures should be in the 40s and 30s.
Holtz seems to be concerned that his team might not be ready to handle cold weather along with other distractions, but that is all outweighed with a possible divisional title on the line.
“We’ve got a short week,” Holtz said. “We’ve had six days to prepare for this game, and Marshall had an open date and will have 13 days to prepare for this game. We have final exams this week. We’ll be travelling on Thursday on the last day of class. We’re playing on the road at their place where they have a great win-loss record as a program playing at home. The weather will probably be a little uncharacteristic from Louisiana weather.
“We’ve got some things we have to overcome. As a football team, this is what we’ve got in front of us. It’s going to be a great challenge for our team, but one that we’re looking forward to and are going to embrace. We’re excited to go up there to play this game.”