The Tampa Bay area does not usually celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in mid-December, but it should start the tradition this year when fans of the South Florida Bulls (who sport dark green attire) meet Marshall Thundering Herd fans, who wear a lighter hue of “kelly” green. On December 20, at 8:00, South Florida hosts Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl. The game will be televised by ESPN.
The teams ended their respective seasons headed in opposite directions. Charlie Strong’s Bulls’ strong start was soured by a five-game losing streak to end the season. Marshall, on the other hand, won five of their last seven. How the two teams got here says a lot about how the game could unfold.
South Florida: Depleted Offense Can’t Mask Bad Defense
College football features far more high-octane offenses these days than it does fundamentally-sound defenses. The reasons for this are obvious. That said, teams that follow an offense-first philosophy tend to risk a lot more when things go awry. South Florida proved no exception.
The Bulls started the season well, roaring out to a 7-1 start. In those first eight games, South Florida scored more than thirty points in five of them. The Bulls also rushed for over 200 yards in six of those eight games, eclipsing 300 twice. In their final four games, however, the Bulls couldn’t find more than 200 yards on the ground in any single game. The result? In those first eight games, South Florida outscored opponents 36-30 on average. In the final four, South Florida was outscored 16-35.
In the Bulls’ defense, the team has been battered by injuries. As a result, their run-first offense failed to carry the team through the second half of the long season.
Nonetheless, South Florida benefitted from solid production from Jordan Cronkrite and Johnny Ford on the ground. Both backs average over six yards per carry and both recorded at least eight touchdowns.
Junior signal-caller Blake Barnett has completed 62% of his passes and has thrown or run for 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Redshirt senior Tyree McCants led the Bulls’ wideouts with nearly 800 yards on 58 receptions. Nonetheless, the Bulls rely heavily on the run, averaging over 202 yards (to over 240 yards passing).
The Bulls’ defense has been a liability, however, surrendering nearly 32 points per game, good for 91st in the nation. Khalid McGee has been a high spot on the defense after switching from safety to linebacker. He leads the Bulls with 104 tackles. Nick Roberts has created havoc in the secondary, forcing three interceptions this season. The defense, as a unit, has been particularly ineffective against the run, surrendering just under 250 rushing yards per game.
Two Questions for the Bulls
For the Bulls, two big stories emerge. First, can they can recover to win their third straight bowl? Second, will their seemingly-disgruntled fan base show for a bonafide home bowl game? The second question has longer-term implications, but the first has more immediate repercussions for Strong, who will surely face questions as Willie Taggart era players begin matriculating from the program.
For what it is worth, Strong sounds positive, at least. In a school-issued statement, Strong said, “We are excited for the opportunity to compete in a bowl game against a good opponent and the chance to send our seniors out with a third straight bowl win.” Unfortunately, the excitement does not seem credible at this point.
Marshall – Solid Defense Catapults Balanced Offense
On the other hand, for the Thundering Herd, the Gasparilla Bowl offers plenty of excitement. First, for several Marshall players, the game acts as a homecoming of sorts. This rings particularly true for redshirt senior linebacker Frankie Hernandez, who played high school football in nearby Largo. He spoke to the team’s overall excitement level when he told the media, “It’s going to be turned up. I’m excited. It’s crazy how it turns out.” Hernandez added, “Definitely for our last game here as a part of Marshall’s team, we want this win bad.”
Indeed, the Gasparilla Bowl would be Marshall’s seventh consecutive bowl win. In fact, in Head Coach Doc Holliday’s eight prior seasons, the Thundering Herd are 5-0 in bowl appearances.
Defense First Mentality
This season, Marshall has taken a defense-first mentality. Its rushing defense has been particularly stout. They rank ninth in the nation in run defense and are surrendering just over two yards per carry. They have not yielded a single 100-yard game to any opposing rusher the entire season. And, in total defense, Marshall finished the season 23rdoverall. The Herd also create solid pressure, piling up 39 sacks over the season.
Marshall’s defense starts with a duo of solid linebackers, in Hernandez and Chase Hancock. Hernandez has racked up 69 tackles, three fumble recoveries, an interception, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. And his partner-in-crime Hancock has compiled 98 tackles, with six of them for loss, and 3.5 sacks.
The linebackers are supported by defensive lineman Ty Tyler who has dialed up 8 sacks on the year. And Marshall’s secondary is led by Malik Gant, who has defended eight passes and forced two interceptions to go with his 90 tackles. With solid play across all three levels, the Herd yielded only 22 points per game.
While Marshall’s offense has not been explosive this season, it has been well balanced, favoring the run ever so slightly. Marshall’s top two running backs, Tyler King and Brenden Knox, both average over 5.8 yards per carry.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Green has led the Herd’s balanced attack, managing games well enough through the season to lead his team to an 8-4 record. Green has thrown 15 touchdowns to only ten interceptions, and he is completing over 55% of his passes. His favorite targets are senior-bowl invitee Tyre Brady along with Obi Obialo and Armani Levias. Brady is the most consistent big-play threat, leading the team with nine touchdowns and averaging nearly 14 yards per reception.
Marshall has used its balanced approach to control clock where it can, averaging just under 30 minutes of possession. This allows its defense to control the tempo and outcome of games.
Marshall and South Florida are in exact opposite places at this point in the season. The Bulls ended with a whimper, and Marshall ended with a bang (outside of the lopsided loss to a desperate Virginia Tech team). South Florida seems indifferent to the bowl, while the Herd is as anxious as ever to prove itself a relevant program. Unfortunately for the Bulls, their slide continues as Marshall’s strength will negate South Florida’s offensive potency. Marshall wins 31-20.
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