BOCA RATON, Fla. — This is Conference USA’s latest rendition of “game of the year,” especially so for Marshall.
For the Thundering Herd, the swing between winning and losing Friday night at Florida Atlantic is extraordinary.
A bounce-back victory brings the Herd (6-2, 3-1 C-USA) back into a first-place tie with FAU (5-3, 4-0), with a tiebreaker advantage to boot. Florida International, also 3-1 in the league after beating MU last week, plays Texas-San Antonio on Saturday.
Should the Herd lose, it will be two games out of the lead with three games to go, all tiebreakers going against them and Western Kentucky coming to Huntington eight days later.
Not an elimination game, but close enough. And the Herd faces a difficult test in the suddenly formidable Owls.
After the last four games, FAU seems on the verge of making the rest of the league the 13 dwarves. In those games, they scored 207 points, racked up 2,254 total yards, 694 by Devin Singletary on the ground. For the season, they have forced 20 turnovers and turned those into 73 points.
At WKU, the Owls followed takeaways with an 18-yard TD drive in the second quarter and a tying touchdown in the fourth. In the first half against North Texas, three takeaways produced two touchdowns and a field goal.
There’s Marshall’s first assignment, and it’s not just winning the turnover battle. Zero is the probably only number that works, and the Herd did that four games in a row before last week’s game against FIU.
Marshall quarterback Chase Litton committed three last week in that 41-30 loss, two interceptions and one fumble on the game’s second play. But he is 44 of 67 for 504 yards and two touchdowns in two games against FAU, so he has dealt with that secondary.
And he wants badly to bounce back.
“Like every other guy who has played the game of football, who’s worth a crap, there’s not one guy who has played football that has played a perfect game,” said offensive coordinator Bill Legg. “Sometimes that’s less perfect than others; but never in the history of football has a guy played a perfect game.
“But if you’re a competitor, and [Litton] is, you go back to work and you study why you had a mistake, you learn from that mistake and then you move on and you put that in your bank.”
There are other factors that could produce a Marshall upset, including:
n Strangely enough, the Herd plays better on the road.
At North Carolina State, the Herd led in the second quarter. At Cincinnati, MU led 24-0 at the half. Charlotte was an ugly win, but MU wasn’t really threatened. Then the Herd spanked Middle Tennessee, 38-10.
At home, the Herd hung on for dear life against Miami (Ohio) and won ugly over Kent State. MU led Old Dominion just 7-0 at the half, and then there was the FIU game …
n Want a proven way to slow an offense? Keep it on the sidelines.
If you’re wondering how 3-6 Buffalo could beat the Owls, check the time-of-possession stat.
Remember how Marshall hogged the ball for 39 minutes against Cincinnati in its 38-21 win? A week earlier, Buffalo possessed the ball for 40:28 in beating FAU 34-31 in a game the Bulls led by seven to 14 points most of the way.
Yes, the Owls gained 264 rushing yards, but they were held to 3 of 10 on third downs, while the Bulls were 8 of 16.
Doable? Absolutely! FAU has given up third-down conversions at a 48.4 percent rate, next to last in the league, so the Herd could take advantage there.
n FAU’s Jason Driskel isn’t necessarily a top-tier quarterback in the league, though he can beat you with his arm and his feet. Yes, his feet — he scored four touchdowns against Old Dominion.
But he is 23 of 48 with two interceptions and not touchdowns in two games against Marshall, and he had a good running attacks to help him out. In fact, the Owls ran for 281 yards in the Herd’s 27-21 win last year in Huntington.
n And finally, the Herd could use a great special-teams day and perhaps a non-offensive TD or two.
If Marshall can circle most or all of those items, it can extend its superiority in the all-time series to 5-0. It needs a win against a winning team, as its six wins have come against teams who are now a combined 13-35, 13-29 if you take out the losses to MU.
This program needs a big victory over a conference contender, and this would qualify. It needs a victory to jump into the thick of the East Division race; if it loses, Marshall will remain mathematically alive for the East title.
But that’s about it.