— By Bill Cornwell
Marshall seeks to regain its form its started the season with Friday night in a nationally televised matchup at North Texas as the teams meet in a cross divisional Conference USA matchup.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. at UNT’s Apogee Stadium with CBS Sports Network carrying the Herd’s seventh contest of the season.
Marshall (3-3, 1-1) scored the final 14 points last Saturday on the way to a 20-13 overtime win over Old Dominion at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. After struggling for much of the day, MU quarterback Grant Wells caught fire late, hitting receiver Willie Johnson on a 52-yard scoring strike with 33 seconds left, and then with receiver Shadeed Ahmed on a 22-yard touchdown pass in overtime.
Marshall’s defense kept Old Dominion out of the end zone in overtime to preserve the victory.
North Texas (1-4, 0-2) has struggled so far in 2021 and enters off a 48-35 loss at Missouri.
The Mean Green rallied late in the game behind quarterback Austin Aune, who threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns against the Tigers.
In his sixth season at North Texas, head coach Seth Littrell brings a career mark of 32-35 into tonight’s matchup, which includes a 38-21 home win over Marshall in 2016.
Marshall leads the all-time series 2-1, though both of its wins came in Huntington.
Here are three things to look for Friday:
How much can each running game open up passing plays?
The battle of the running games will be pivotal as Marshall’s Rasheen Ali tries to match or surpass the production of the Mean Green’s DeAndre Torrey.
Torrey is Conference USA’s top rusher, averaging more than 120 yards in five contests.
Ali is the league’s third-ranked rusher with an average of 93 yards per game.
The Mean Green has the conference’s top running attack at 203.4 yards per contest while Marshall is eighth at 158 yards.
Sustaining a productive running game should also open up passing opportunities, an area in which Marshall has the advantage statistically.
Still, Marshall coach Charles Huff is concerned about the North Texas passing attack after Aune has grown more comfortable with his receivers over the past few weeks.
“They did a really good job against Missouri last week. Their offense is starting to come together,” Huff said. “They had a quarterback get injured; the quarterback they have coming in, they found some continuity and flow with their system for him. Defensively, I think these guys run to the ball. This is probably one of the fastest teams that we play as far as team speed.”
Can Wells get into a rhythm?
Wells had an uneven performance in last week’s overtime win over Old Dominion.
There was improvement in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter, when Wells threw for 114 yards and the game-tying touchdown to force OT.
Herd fans have been frustrated at times with Wells’ ups-and-downs (eight touchdowns and nine interceptions), but Huff isn’t worried about Wells.
“When we have rhythm, I think, we move the ball with consistency,” Huff said. “Our issues come when we don’t have rhythm. We get a false start, we get a guy not on the line, we get a guy covering up a guy, we throw the ball to [leading receiver Corey Gammage] and they call the push off. I think the issue has not been confidence, but it’s been rhythm. On that last drive, we had rhythm. When you can get a rhythm and you can eliminate the drive killers, I think we have a chance at really getting it rolling.”
Friday night lights
The movie and television show “Friday Night Lights” was about the phenomenon of big-time high school football throughout the state of Texas. College football will be in the spotlight tonight in the Lone Star State as a national audience watches Marshall and North Texas.
This is the first Friday night game in school history for North Texas and Littrell sees it as great exposure for his program.
“It’s a quick turnaround, but the first couple of days have gone well,” Littrell said. “Practice has gone smoothly. I love Friday night football, in the state of Texas especially. It’s unbelievable. It’s always been a tradition, and I love playing football whenever they tell me we’re going to go out and play.”
Marshall has played its fair share of Friday games and gets an opportunity to post a key conference road win in its latest one.
Marshall hasn’t won a coin toss this season … Herd senior center Will Ulmer is scheduled to make his 51st career start tonight. Last week, he became only the 11th player in Marshall history with at least 50 starts. Ulmer joins Chris Deaton, Aaron Ferguson, Chris Jasperse, Billy Lyon, Steve Sciullo, Roger Johnson, Chad Pennington, Nate McPeek, Levi Brown and Melvin Cunningham with 50-plus starts at Marshall … Wells surpassed 4,000 career passing yards in the ODU win and tied Bud Nelson for 16th on the Herd’s career touchdown passes list with 26 … Marshall’s defense is second in the nation in sacks with 24 and is sixth in tackles for loss per game at eight … Aune was a second-round pick of the New York Yankees in the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft. The 28-year old played six years in the Yankees’ farm system and made it as high as advanced Class A ball with the Tampa Yankees.