Emotional Saturday in store for Marshall as all-important matchup with UAB looms

— By Bill Cornwell

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall hopes to make it five straight wins Saturday when the Thundering Herd plays host to UAB at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

The 3:30 p.m. game is being shown nationally on CBS Sports Network and is a rematch of last year’s Conference USA Championship Game in Huntington, which was won by the Blazers 22-13.

Both teams have identical 6-3 records and are 4-1 in C-USA.  Marshall extended its winning streak to four last week with a 28-13 win at Florida Atlantic, while UAB won an shootout over Louisiana Tech, 52-38.

This week’s game is special on the Marshall schedule each year, as its the game played closest to the November 14 anniversary of the Marshall football plane crash. That crash in 1970 took the lives of 75 Marshall football players, coaches, staff members and fans.

The Thundering Herd will wear all-black uniforms and special helmet decals Saturday to honor the crash victims. The annual crash memorial service is planned for Sunday at 2 p.m. on the Memorial Student Center Plaza and will feature remarks by Mark Miller, a freshman on the 1970 MU football team.

First-year Herd coach Charles Huff says he quickly learned of the emphasis placed on this week from Marshall fans.

“I’m excited to be a part of this weekend, a part of this game, a part of this weekend ceremony and what it means to not only Marshall and this community, but to all of the country,” Huff said. “A lot of people know, respect and cheer for Marshall University because of our resilience and because of our commitment to pressing forward.”

UAB head coach Bill Clark understands the emotions that will be in place in Huntington on Saturday, but his biggest concern is preparing for a Marshall team playing its best football of the season.

“We are going back to the place where we played the championship game last year,” Clark said.  “I’m sure they haven’t forgotten that. It does help that we’ve just been in that stadium not too long ago. They are playing really well on all sides of the ball. They had a big win over Florida Atlantic, which it’s really tough to win at their place. We are going to have our hands full.”

This week’s matchup pits two of the more productive offenses in college football.

Marshall redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells had his sixth 300-plus yard passing performance in the FAU win, which also featured a career-high receiving night for senior Willie Johnson (140 yards and a touchdown) and freshman running back Rasheen Ali’s combined 160 yards (90 rushing, 70 receiving) and two rushing TDs.

UAB’s top weapon is sophomore running back DeWayne McBride, who ran for 210 and four touchdowns in last week’s Louisiana Tech win.

Redshirt junior quarterback Dylan Hopkins has started five games and averages 201 passing yards per contest, including 196 and two touchdowns last week. His top receiving threat is junior Rajae’ Johnson-Sanders, who had a 101-yard effort against the Bulldogs.

The defensive matchup will be interesting as the Blazers are a stingy 22nd nationally in total defense and 24th in rushing defense.

The Blazers defense has Huff’s complete attention.

“A phenomenal defense and very stout against the run,” Huff said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for all their players. Noah Wilder, their middle linebacker, does a phenomenal job and you can tell he’s got unbelievable leadership skills. His play speaks for itself. They are probably the best run defense we will play this year up until this point.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us because we pride ourselves on being able to run the football and they pride themselves on being able to stop the run, so it’s going to be a challenge.”

Marshall remains among the top scoring defenses and is ranked 19th.

Marshall’s special teams were a big part of last week’s FAU win. A 99-yard opening kickoff return by Jayden Harrison for a touchdown and multiple punts inside the 20-yard line by Robert LeFevre were vital.

Clark is 46-25 as the Blazers’ head coach and he’s led UAB to C-USA titles in 2018 and 2020, as well as a 2019 West Division Championship.

Marshall leads the all-time series 8-3. The Herd has won five of six games played against UAB in Huntington, while taking three of five games in Birmingham.

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