Marshall vs. No. 16 Louisiana: What to watch for

By Bill Cornwell

Marshall tries to end its first season under head coach Charles Huff in positive fashion and restore success it had in bowl games over two decades when the Thundering Herd meets No. 16 Louisiana in the R+L Carriers New Orelans Bowl at 9:15 p.m. Saturday.

The game at the Caesars Superdome will be shown on ESPN, and marks the first meeting between two schools that will be conference rivals in the Sun Belt in the near future.

Marshall is 12-4 all-time in NCAA-sanctioned bowls, the highest mark nationally among teams that have played in at least seven bowl games. The Herd, however, is on a two-game bowl losing streak, falling in the 2019 Gasparilla Bowl to Central Florida, before suffering a 17-10 loss to Buffalo in last year’s Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.

Louisiana is 5-3 in bowl games and on a two-game bowl win streak.

Marshall (7-5, 5-3) ended the season with losses in two of its final three games, suffering home defeats at the hands of UAB and Western Kentucky, the latter of which prevented it from playing in the Conference USA title game.

The Ragin’ Cajuns (12-1, 8-0) are on a roll and winners of 12 straight games, including a 24-16 victory at home over Appalachian State on December 4 in the Sun Belt Conference title game.

Huff’s 13th game in charge of the Herd will pit him against a coach in his first game — Louisiana’s Michael Desormeaux.

Desormeaux was named as the Ragin’ Cajuns new leader after former coach Billy Napier took the head coaching job at Florida. Napier’s last game at Louisiana was the win over the Mountaineers earlier this month. Desormeaux is a 2008 Louisiana graduate who has been an assistant with the program since 2016.

Here are three things to look for in the contest:

Fundamentally sound Ragin’ Cajuns

Louisiana plays what some would describe as old school, fundamental football. The Ragin’ Cajuns won’t get high marks for flash, but feature solid units on both sides of the football.

Offensively, Louisiana depends on sound decision-making by senior quarterback Levi Lewis, who can beat opponents with his feet and his arm. Louisiana’s offensive statistics aren’t eye-opening when compared to those of the Thundering Herd, but the Ragin’ Cajuns make few mistakes, losing only four fumbles in 13 games, while Lewis has been intercepted four times.

Marshall’s offense faces a big challenge in stopping a Ragin’ Cajuns defense that allows only 18.3 points per game, the 11th best mark in the nation. Louisiana is also tough against the pass, allowing just under 200 yards per game, good for 25th nationally.

Key players on defense to watch for include leading tackler and safety Percy Butler, who made 60 stops on the season and outside linebacker Chauncey Manac, who had 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for losses to lead the Ragin’ Cajuns.

“They have a great front seven and they’re built similarly to what we’re trying to build,” Huff said. “They do a good job of forcing you to go the distance of the field.”

Grant Wells’ health

After Herd quarterback Grant Wells was knocked out of the Western Kentucky loss in the second quarter, fans wondered if he would be available for the Herd’s bowl game. All indications are Wells will be ready to show all aspects of his game against the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Marshall quarterback Grant Wells (8) throws a pass. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

“Our medical folks say he’s good and he’s looked good in practice and showed a lot of confidence,” Huff said.

For Marshall to have a chance to knock off the nationally-ranked Ragin’ Cajuns, Wells will have to produce one of his best efforts, making quality adjustments at the line, using his feet when needed and cutting down on turnovers.

Even though he’s passed for 3,433 yards and 16 touchdowns while completing 66.8 percent of his throws, Wells also has 12 interceptions.

If Wells can spread the ball to his talented receiving corps of Corey Gammage, Xavier Gaines, Willie Johnson, Jayden Harrison and Talik Keaton, plus get another strong performance from freshman tailback Rasheen Ali, the Herd can certainly hang around.

Sun Belt proving ground

Huff and his staff have had a lot to think about after Marshall announced in November it was joining fellow Conference USA members Southern Miss and Old Dominion, along with James Madison, in jumping to the Sun Belt Conference in the near future.

Some of Marshall’s recruiting decisions were likely guided by preparing to compete with solid Sun Belt programs such as Louisiana, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern.

How Marshall performs against the Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday could indicate if the Thundering Herd is ready for the Sun Belt or if more work is needed.

“They’re a phenomenal opponent and over the last three seasons, they’ve been great,” Huff said. “It’s an opportunity to see where our next steps will be as we head to the Sun Belt.”

— — —

Herd recruiting

Marshall signed 27 student-athletes Wednesday for its 2022 early recruiting class, which includes 12 mid-year enrollees.

“We have made tremendous strides in this recruiting class,” Huff said. “I think we addressed some immediate issues and also elevated the talent level on our team. We also wanted to even out the roster. It was a little lopsided at some positions and we have some gaps there. I want to give a big shoutout to Mike Villagrana, our General Manager, and his department. They did a phenomenal job all year of making sure that our recruiting efforts matched our intensity on the field.”

Marshall’s class is currently ranked 48th nationally by, a program-best, and is the highest among those who have made a commitment to Group of Five membership moving forward.

The class includes the sons of two former MU players — Lexington, Kentucky native Cole Pennington, a quarterback and the son of Marshall quarterback legend and former NFL player Chad Pennington; and wide receiver Cam Pedro of Suwanee, Georgia, the son of former Marshall running back Glenn Pedro. One future Herd quarterback to watch for is Centerville, Ohio’s Chase Harrison, an All-Ohio pick who threw for nearly 9,000 yards in high school.

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