— By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A possible preview of the upcoming Conference USA Football championship is on tap in Huntington Friday night. The conference’s East Division leader, Marshall, hosts the West Division leader and only unbeaten 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 that marked the Herd’s fourth straight victory.
Tech (8-1, 5-0) won its eighth straight game last Saturday, a 52-17 home triumph over North Texas, the West Division preseason favorite.
Marshall and Louisiana Tech have met only twice and the series is tied at a win apiece.
Here are some things to watch for in Friday’s game:
1 — Slowing the Bulldogs
Marshall’s defense faces a major challenge in finding a way to stop a Louisiana Tech offense that is among the nation’s best, ranking 17th as compared to Marshall’s rank of No. 50.
The offensive numbers for the Bulldogs are impressive — 38.1 points per game average, 479.1 yards per game and 292 passing yards per contest.
Tech has scored 35 or more points in six games this season and has scored at least 40 points in the last four games. The attack is led by fifth-year senior quarterback J’Mar Smith, who has thrown for 2,483 yards and 14 touchdowns along with only four interceptions.
Marshall’s potent pass rush must cause Smith problems, not allowing him to escape the pocket and make plays with his feet.
Also key for the MU defenders is slowing down Tech running back Justin Henderson, who has more than 700 yards to go with 14 touchdowns on the year.
Opportunities will abound for several Herd playmaking defenders such as Channing Hames, Omari Cobb, Darius Hodge, Jamare Edwards, Tavante Beckett and Tyler Brown.
2 — Converting in the red zone
Louisiana Tech’s defense is ranked seventh in Conference USA, two spots below Marshall, but the Bulldogs have shown a toughness in halting teams in the red-zone, allowing opponents to score on just 60 percent of their red-zone opportunities (21 scores in 35 chances). Tech is third in the nation in that category.
Marshall has converted on 22 of 29 red zone opportunities into scores, including 15 for touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Isaiah Green has been able to hit long touchdown throws to receivers such as Armani Levias, Willie Johnson and Talik Keaton in recent games, but Tech’s defense might make it tougher to hit high-impact plays.
That puts the pressure of MU’s veteran offensive line and running back Brenden Knox to produce when red-zone opportunities arrive.
3 — Emotion of the 75
Can Marshall’s football team ride the emotion of the 49th anniversary of the 1970 plane crash into a win?
The Herd hasn’t lost the anniversary game over the past six years.
In those games, the team dons black uniforms and player helmets contain the number 75 on one side in honor of the number of crash victims — and the 1970 MU helmet logo on the other side.
Emotion can only take you so far, so it will be up to MU head coach Doc Holliday and his staff to get the Herd ready for a fast start against the Bulldogs.
A big concern for MU will be not repeating the post bye week doldrums shown earlier this season. After a 2-1 start with wins over VMI and Ohio and loss at nationally-ranked Boise State, Marshall was off the week of Sept. 21, but followed the break with ugly losses to Cincinnati and Middle Tennessee.
With a Conference USA East Division title and possible opportunity to host the league’s title game on the line, there’s plenty of motivation for Marshall to combine emotion and effort into a strong performance.
All Marshall football letterman have been invited to be a part of pregame activities on Friday night as an encouragement prior to the game … Knox is putting together a special year, as he’s scored in six of Marshall’s nine games and totaled up four 100-yard rushing games. His top performance was the 220 yards gained in a win at FAU, allowing him to join Ron Lear, Ron Darby, Chris Parker and Ahmad Bradshaw as Herd backs with multiple 200-yard rushing games (Knox gained 204 yards last season in a loss at Virginia Tech) … Marshall is leading Conference USA in field goal percentage (.929), sacks (32, No. 8 nationally) and fourth-down percentage allowed (27.3) … Marshall punter Robert LeFevre has pinned the opposition inside the 20-yard line on 15 occasions so far this season while only suffering two touchbacks.