The Thundering Herd, coming off of a hard fought 24-20 victory versus Rice, are 3-4 overall and are tied for first place with ECU at 2-1 in CUSA's Eastern division.
The Thundering Herd are coached by Doc Holiday who is 8-11 in his second year. He is an old school coach who believes in his football team being physically tough. While not ranking very high statistically in any defensive categories you can see how physical they are from the way they play behind second year defensive coordinator Chris Rippon- whom has nearly 30 years coaching experience at various stops. The Herd play an aggressive attacking 4-3 scheme led by defensive end Vinny Curry. The CUSA's reigning defensive player of the year (and this year's pick by the CUSA coaches) is performing right on cue as his 9.5 sacks are second nationally and first in CUSA play. The rugged 6-foot-3, 270 pounder also leads both the nation and CUSA in tackles for loss with 17 total. Behind Curry, Marshall is first in the nation in TFL with 67 (almost ten per game). They are also tied for second in CUSA with the Cougars with 17 total sacks, one behind SMU. The Herd are fifth in CUSA allowing opponents to score 25.3 points per game, compared to the Cougars defense which allows 22.7.
Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said about Curry during today's weekly media press conference "Curry is an exceptional football player and one of the better players in our league. He reminds me of Bruce Miller (former UCF defensive end), who was the defensive player of the year in our league two years ago. He'll probably be as good a player as we've seen so far, and we'll probably see some other good players down the road. Without a doubt this is a talented guy with a high motor. I think the difference is that Bruce was significantly smaller than Curry, but still a high motor guy with talent. Vinny is a great pass rusher and he's used to seeing some double teams. We have to be creative, but we can't vary too much from what we do. We've got to be able to mix it up." I asked coach Sumlin for a comparison to Cougars Will linebacker Sammy Brown, whom ranks second in CUSA with 5.5 sacks and 14 TFL behind Curry, "they are two different types of rushers. Curry is bigger at 265 to 270 pounds and can play inside and out while Sammy is more of your prototypical outside linebacker. He's smaller at 235 to 240 and is more of a speed rusher." The Herd allow 156.7 yards per game rushing (5th in CUSA, 67th in the nation), which is a tad better than the Cougars 163.8. They allow 230 yards through the air (6th-CUSA, 73rd nationally) to the Cougars 228. Both defenses go after the ball as the Herd's defense has created 17 total turnovers(10 fumble recoveries and 7 interceptions) leading to their ranking of second best in CUSA in turnover margin at +.71. Who is first you ask? That would be your Houston Cougars at +1.17. Their front four averages out to 275 pounds per man so the Cougars should be able to run on them, as other physical teams such as Virginia Tech and Southern Miss have already this season. Nose tackle Delvin Johnson is a load (at 315 pounds) as his six TFL would attest. Other members of the Herd's defense to watch include their three linebackers; George Carpenter(Sam), Jermaine Holmes(Mike) and Tyson Gale(Will). Carpenter has 46 total tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3, fumble recovers, 2 forced fumbles and a partridge in a pear tree. They like to blitz a lot with Gale as his 6 TFL are second on the team. Free safety Omar Brown is 4th in CUSA with 78 total tackles. Brown also has 3.5 forced fumbles and has recovered 3 of them. Having your free safety lead the team in tackles means one of two things; either the team is being run on and the safety is making tackles down field, or they play him close to the line of scrimmage. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle as the Cougars might be able to use the Herd's aggressiveness against them via the play action game. A play I particularly like is when quarter back Case Keenum hits one of the Cougars slot receivers (usually Justin Johnson or Tyron Carrier) on a quick post down the middle of the field after the line backers (or in this case a safety) have bit hard off of a play action fake. The Herd also has two physical corners in Rashad Jackson and Monterius Lovett – whom has two interceptions and fumble recoveries.
Offensively for the Coogs, the key according to coach Sumlin is to do well on first and second downs. They try to get you off schedule (down and distance wise) and get you into third and long situations. This is where their opportunistic defense cashes in the most. As long as the Cougars receivers don't drop passes I think their up tempo no huddle offense will tire out the Herd's defense over the course of the game.
Marshall's offense, led by offensive coordinator Tony Peterson (who has coached both Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich in previous stints at Marshall during the mid to late 1990s), won't impress on paper (they only average 25.3 points per game), but two words that Cougar fans fear will be key to this game for Marshall's offense: "zone read." The Herd changed QBs last week, going with A.J. Graham, over Rakeem Cato (who started the previous six games). The redshirt sophomore led Marshall to their first three rushing touch downs of the season as he had 129 yards on 20 carries and two of the TDs rushing in their victory over Rice. The true freshman- Cato, who is more of a passer, played in three second half series leading the Herd to ‘three and outs' each time so look for Graham to play the entire game.
Coach Sumlin said about Marshall's QB change, "He (Graham) gave them a spark as a runner. He's able to do some things and generate offense. They've got some players on the perimeter that can help. You've got a quarterback that can get yards and really incorporate quarterback run and read games. We've got to adjust and be able to stop a varied running attack, meaning not just running backs but the quarterback as well. We have to be disciplined in our rush lanes and be able to play a lot more quarterback read, option-type attack, and be able to defend play action deep balls over the top. So it's a different football game and a different team than it was two weeks ago."
This means that the Cougars linebackers, Brown and fellow starters Derrick Mathews(Mo), Marcus McGraw(Mike) and Phillip Steward(Sam) will have to be on their games. Coach Sumlin did not have a comment on whether or not three of the injured members of the secondary would return or not. Strong safety Colton Valencia suffered a concussion at UTEP while free safety Chevy Bennett and corner back D.J. Hayden have sat the past two games due to lower leg injuries.
Other than Graham running the ball on the read option, the Herd rely on running backs Tron Martinez and Travon Van. Both are physical backs as Martinez leads the team with 367 yards. Van is not too far behind with 201. The Herd average only 104 yards per game rushing overall, good for 9th in the conference and 103rd nationally as it looks as though they are still looking for an identity on offense. Hopefully they will not find it at the Cougars expense with Graham whizzing by defenders on various read option plays as had been the case versus UCLA and at North Texas earlier in the season. The Herd pass for only 175 yards per game, good for dead last in the conference and 99th nationally. The "players on the perimeter" Sumlin alluded to earlier include receivers Aaron Dobson, Antavious Wilson and tight end Gator Hoskins. Dobson leads the team with 309 yards on 25 receptions (12.4 average per catch) and four touchdowns while Wilson has 203 on 14 receptions. The Cougars secondary, consisting of young corners Zack McMillian and Thomas Bates must continue to excel when in man coverage, allowing the front seven to blitz the young Herd offensive line. Marshall has allowed 14 sacks on the season thus far as they have two sophomores and one redshirt freshman along the line.
On special teams, Marshall is first in the nation in punt return average with 19.5 per, albeit on only six total returns (of which Andre Booker has 95 yards on his five returns and one TD). Return yards, whether it be kickoff or punt, is not an area the Cougars can relax in as they do not want to give a struggling offense good field position. Cougar kickers Richie Leone (punting), Jordan Mannisto (kickoffs) and Matt Hogan (field goals) must continue to excel in their respective special teams play.
As always, the key to victory for this game will be for the Cougars to "do what they do" in all three phases of the game. If Houston can get off to an early lead they will put pressure on a Marshall offense that doesn't look like it has big play abilities. This means the Cougars offense must score touchdowns while in the red zone and not rely on field goals. While UH is 35th in the nation at scoring TDs in the red zone(at an 65.7% clip), the defense of the Thundering Herd have allowed opponents to cross the goal line only 15 of 29 times, which at 52% is good for 36th in the nation. This will be important as the Cougars have been inside the red zone a whopping 35 times in just 6 games or 4th nationally. While being outscored in all four quarters, Marshall seems to have depth issues starting in the second quarter as they have been outscored 82 to 30 in the period. Look for this trend to continue Saturday as the Cougars get out to a big lead, making Marshall rely on a passing game far more than want to.Final Prediction: Houston – 47 Marshall – 13.