HUNTINGTON — Marshall football coach Doc Holliday has a saying he uses each year that a game is the most important one because it is the next one.
While that rings true each week, the matchup for Holliday’s Thundering Herd takes on added meaning on Saturday when Marshall travels to Western Kentucky for a 7:30 p.m. contest at Houchens-Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The rivals meet with goals of a Conference USA championship in mind. A loss for either team would go a long way in hindering those aspirations.
Especially in a year where games aren’t guaranteed, Holliday wants his team to take advantage of each opportunity to step on the field.
“If you look at what’s happened around the country with games being canceled every week, you just don’t know,” Holliday said. “You’d better take advantage of every opportunity you get, especially in conference play.”
So far, Marshall (2-0, 0-0 C-USA) has taken advantage of each opportunity on the field, winning games over Eastern Kentucky and Appalachian State. However, the Herd has not played since the Sept. 19 win over App State.
Western Kentucky (1-2, 1-0 C-USA) got its first win of the season in its conference opener at Middle Tennessee last week. Holliday knows that for his team to realize its goals at season’s end, it starts with getting a tough win on the road.
“Most experts have [WKU] picked to win our league and it’s going to be a big challenge for us to go there,” Holliday said. “We’ll have to play well.”
The Hilltoppers are led offensively by quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, who is also the team’s leading rusher on the season. Western Kentucky has not generated a ton of offense in 2020, but when it has, it has been Pigrome who has led them down the field.
The key in this matchup will be how Western Kentucky’s offense fares against a Marshall defense that is No. 6 in total defense and No. 1 in scoring defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
While Marshall’s numbers have been good, Holliday said the Herd must be vigilant and ready to go against Pigrome on Saturday. Efficiency has been key to success for Pigrome, who joins Miami’s D’Eriq King and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence as the only quarterbacks nationally with six touchdown passes and no interceptions.
“This guy can beat you with his feet as well as with his arm,” Holliday said. “He was the conference player of the week last week against Middle — offensive player of the week. It’s going to be a great challenge for our defense and we’re going to have to try to continue to do a great job of keeping them out of the end zone and keeping points off the board.”
Offensively for the Herd, Marshall quarterback Grant Wells will make his first road start and first conference start on Saturday, which heightens the stakes for the freshman from Charleston. With Western Kentucky bringing its safeties into the box to load up on the run, Wells will have to show an ability to get the ball to his receivers early while the receivers must win one-on-one battles to keep drives moving.
Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton heaped lots of praise on Wells, calling him an “NFL talent” after seeing film of the first two games of his college career.
“He brings a different problem to our defense than the first three weeks,” Helton said. “Now you’re facing more of a guy that he’s going to try to tear you up in the passing game, but at the same time he can get out of trouble and make quality runs.”
With the two opponents knowing each other so well, it will be the little wrinkles involved that could decide the game on Saturday. Holliday noted that Helton liked to take shots with trick plays to get a defense off its game, while Helton said the Herd is less about deception and more about execution.
“When you’re a good football team like Marshall, they don’t really care,” Helton said. “They do what they do and they say, ‘Hey, stop us, see if you can stop us.’ I like that, to be honest with you.”
One area that Holliday said the Herd must win is in the mental aspect of the game. Having not played for three weeks, players are itching to get out there, and being that it is a rivalry game after a long layoff, the Marshall head coach said unnecessary penalties have to be eliminated.
“When you get into a game like this, you have to be a poised team,” Holliday said. “That just boils down in a lot of big games because even a critical penalty here or there can make a difference in winning or losing the game.”
The last three meetings between the teams have all been decided by one score or less, with the Herd coming out on top in each. That fact is not lost on Holliday as his team heads to Bowling Green to start its conference slate.
“The last three years we’ve played these guys, it has come down to the end,” Holliday said. “It’s been tight games for the most part, and we know this will be no different. You just have to play every play.”