— By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Football teams work year-round to ensure that season-ending games are ones of consequence.
That is the case on Saturday as Marshall hosts Western Kentucky in the regular-season finale for both squads.
The winner of the game is the Conference USA East Division Champion and will travel to San Antonio, Texas to face nationally-ranked UTSA on December 3 in the Conference USA title game at the Alamodome.
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. at Joan C. Edwards Stadium and the contest will be shown nationally on CBS Sports Network.
Marshall and Western Kentucky have developed one of the top rivalries in C-USA and third-year WKU head coach Tyson Helton appreciates the back-and-forth between players and fans.
“We’re just two really good schools, two competitive schools,” Helton said. “It’s fun to be in those type of games. Marshall does a great job. Their new coach has done a fantastic job. I always say Marshall is Marshall. Every year they’re just a really good football team. We are always excited to play them because it’s going to be an exciting game and a competitive game.”
Marshall’s first-year head coach Charles Huff has spoken about closing the gap that could lead to a league title and he says facing WKU this week allows the Herd to make a big jump in the process. However, Huff doesn’t want his team to feel any extra pressure this week.
“Ultimately, it’s a big game because it’s the next game in our journey and our journey is coming to an end,” Huff said. “We fully understand the ramifications of the game, but no different than any other game. Regardless of what happened this season, I told the team yesterday, ‘If we would’ve won every game by 300 points, this game would have the same implications.’ We still would have to go out and play really well against a really good opponent in order to continue our season.”
Marshall (7-4, 5-2) is coming off a strong 49-28 road win at Charlotte, while the Hilltoppers (7-4, 6-1) wrapped up the home portion of their schedule last week with a 52-17 win over Florida Atlantic.
The pressure will be on both defenses to stop the high-powered offenses of Marshall and WKU.
Marshall features freshman running back Rasheen Ali, redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells and a talented group of receivers.
WKU’s senior quarterback Bailey Zappe and his top receiver, junior Jerreth Sterns, are both transfers from Houston Baptist. Zappe has thrown for 4,640 yards this season with 48 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.
“The consistency speaks for itself,” Huff said. “Week in and week out you see consistency in production from him. You know, it’s not one week he goes for 450 and next week he throws for 100. Throughout the season, I think consistency has been really good and to me that’s what determines if you’re a good quarterback, good running back, good offensive linemen is your consistency overtime and he’s done that.”
Sterns has 123 receptions for 1,511 yards and 12 touchdowns. Sterns’ catches and receiving yardage are No. 1 nationally, while just three players have hauled in more TDs.
Helton is 0-2 against Marshall and 21-15 overall at WKU.
Marshall leads the all-time series over the Hilltoppers 8-4 and won last year’s game in Bowling Green, Kentucky, 38-14.
Huff touches on Virginia Tech opening
Huff was asked during his Tuesday media availability about reports that name him as a possible candidate for the head coaching job at Virginia Tech.
Huff said he has not been contacted about the job by VT officials, that his agent hasn’t contacted Tech and that he was not actively seeking the position.
Huff is confident any talk of other jobs won’t interfere with Marshall’s preparation for WKU and says it’s a complement to Marshall’s success.
“I do think the acknowledgement is a tremendous respect for the product that our players are putting on the field,” Huff said. “I do think the acknowledgement is a tremendous respect for this Marshall community and I do think the acknowledgement is a tremendous respect for everything we’re trying to build here.”