UCF, Herd wrap up rivalry tonight
HUNTINGTON - The end of the Marshall-Central Florida rivalry isn't exactly on par with the end of West Virginia-Pittsburgh, but one thing is certain: The Thundering Herd and Knights have been on each other's schedule every year since 2002.
Nobody else has. By itself, that gets this game an extra circle or two on the teams' calendars. In football, the most familiarity really does breed the most contempt.
And this is not a simmering rivalry despite UCF's seven straight wins - rather, that's a major factor. Marshall's failure to capitalize on opportunities in the 2005, 2006 and 2009 games played a considerable role in the end of the Mark Snyder administration, and UCF's 2010 hiring of MU's basketball coach dumped a little gas on the fire.
The games themselves are typically physical and subject to any number of strange twists. Herd fans who show up at Joan C. Edwards Stadium for this 8 p.m. game are certain to be fired up, directing pleasantries at UCF coach George O'Leary and his troops. Just to make it more fun, it's Halloween season.
Who knows? Perhaps an MU student or two could dress up as O'Leary.
"I think we're on everybody's high list right now," O'Leary said. "I always look forward to going up there; they have a good fan base, they're an active crowd. I enjoy going up there and competing."
"Against Marshall, it's always been weird weather, or something's been a little weird," said Knights center Jordan Rae. "And we enjoy it."
UCF has long since become the team the rest of Conference USA loves to hate. The impending move to the Big East and the program's success in staving off an NCAA postseason ban until after the season adds to that.
So do the stakes. Strip away emotion and you still have a big game.
A win for UCF (5-2 overall, 3-0 Conference USA) establishes the Knights as the prohibitive favorite to win the East Division, as they would own tiebreakers over MU and 4-1 East Carolina. A win for Marshall (3-4, 2-1) gives the Herd control of its destiny, with ECU at the end of the schedule.
And the Herd would have the knowledge that, yes, it can beat anyone in the league.
"When you look at us and the aspirations, you can say that every game from here on out is a playoff game, to get where we need to get," said MU safety Dominick LeGrande. "Sorry, but losing can't be an option for us."
The most compelling matchup is Marshall's line-'em-and-snap offense against C-USA's top defense, one that grudgingly yielded 31 points to Ohio State, 21 to Missouri and 24 in regulation to Southern Mississippi. The Knights again have a few pro prospects, this time in defensive end Troy Davis, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Kemal Ishmael.
Can they slow down a Marshall team that is averaging 568 total yards on 91 snaps? The tale of the tape gets more stunning by the week - the still-undefeated Ohio Bobcats are the only team that has held the Herd under 30 points and 500 yards.
The biggest question mark, as it is every week in Huntington, is the Marshall defense. The Herd departed from its previously porous ways last week at Southern Miss, dominating the line of scrimmage and frustrating two young quarterbacks along the way.
But UCF quarterback Blake Bortles has proved wise beyond his sophomore classification, and Latavius Murray has returned to full strength, as evidenced by his 192 yards last Saturday against Memphis. If Murray and the Knights continue that trend against the 111th-ranked rushing defense in the FBS, the Herd offense will have to score big to keep up.
But this series hasn't always followed such neat scripts. Odds are something crazy will happen - a rash of turnovers, a blocked punt, multiple skirmishes, you name it.
The Herd wants to write one script change in the 11th and final game of this little rivalry - it wants to end that seven-game losing streak and give UCF a parting "gift." Expect an emotional effort from the men in green.
"Yeah, it's going to be one of those backyard brawl-type situations," said Herd defensive end Alex Bazzie. "It's going to be a fight, you know. You have to stay disciplined, you have to stay tough, and last man standing's going to win."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.