WKU Football: Keys to Victory Against Marshall
Western Kentucky Football is now firmly in the driver’s seat in the East Division of Conference USA. The Tops sit at 4–0 in the conference and are about to face their top two challengers in consecutive weeks.
Marshall (4–3, 2–1 C-USA) seemed like the early preseason C-USA favorite. No other team seemed as competitive nationally as the Thundering Herd through three games.
The Herd came back to Earth with a thud, losing badly to Cincinnati at home and opening up the conference slate with an MTSU team they should beat on most nights.
Marshall seems to have somewhat pulled itself back together with a convincing win against Old Dominion and a squeaker against FAU by five points last week.
Marshall is one of three (FAU & MTSU) serious hurdles remaining in the East race for WKU. Winning on the road at Marshall would prove massive in its quest for an improbable championship appearance.
So what are the Keys to Victory at Marshall?
Keys to Victory
Same Ole, Same Ole
I have never seen a schedule with so many running quarterbacks in a row. From UCA to Charlotte, WKU has faced average to below-average passing attacks with mobile quarterbacks. This does not change with a trip to Marshall. Not one game all season has varied from this, so Defensive Coordinator Clayton White and his side of the ball must do the same thing they’ve tried to do all season: Stop the run. Marshall’s Isaiah Green averages over 35 yards per game, and that number is inhibited by his double-digit sacks taken. He’s a very capable runner. I would look for WKU to key on stuffing the run, playing assignment football, and making Green beat them with his arm.
I don’t usually use motivational cliches as Keys, but WKU needs to continue to play hard and with an edge, or they can easily lose to anyone. Losing focus defensively, or getting overwhelmed offensively could spell doom. WKU has been the underdog all season, but now WKU is the division leader, has a better overall record and is arguably playing better than Marshall at the moment. Yet here we are and WKU is expected to lose by nearly a touchdown. Tyson Helton has talked about “showing up to the park angry”, and people doubting the team is a perfect recipe to keep them freshly motivated. WKU has used the “underdog” mentality to perfection, so they should look forward to this opportunity to further prove some people wrong.
WKU should look like a team possessed. This is a rivalry game, there’s bad blood, it’s a road game, people are doubting you, and you’re trying to win a championship. Look for the Tops to be laser-focused. If not, it could spell real trouble. Marshall is a good football team and should be treated like the potential division winner they are.
Get Back to Dominating the Offensive Line of Scrimmage
WKU’s offensive line has come back to Earth in terms of protecting the quarterback. Is part of that Ty Storey holding onto the football? Yes. However, not every sack in the past few games has been fully on him. Some of those sacks have been devastating. Cory Munson rarely misses inside 40 yards (7-for-9), and some third-down sacks have forced long field goal attempts. WKU has gotten lucky on a few, but others have been pulled left of late (4-of-7 in the past two games).
If WKU’s offensive line is dominant and staves away negative plays, WKU should have the upper hand against Marshall. Marshall’s defensive line forces more than three sacks per game and allows a respectable 134.9 yards on the ground. Overall, the defense allows well less than 400 yards per game, so Marshall has a decent overall defense. However, Marshall only has two games it held its opponent under 400 yards (VMI and ODU). Once again, WKU’s fate lies in the hands of the offensive line. That’s great for Western. They’re a heck of a unit.
Keep Brenden Knox Under 125 Yards Rushing
Marshall has an excellent running back in Brenden Knox. He averages more than 100 yards per game and had 220 last week. That just won’t do against WKU. 200 yards rushing means multiple long runs and/or tons of time of possession lost.
Either way, as was said in the Q&A Session with Moonshine Throwdown, this is strength on strength. My gut says if WKU holds him under 100 yards, Marshall will almost definitely succumb to the Tops. However, if he gets, say more than 150, that absolutely tips the scales to the Herd. 125 is the barometer for me. If he’s right at 125 yards, this is an overtime classic. If he struggles, Marshall’s defense better be incredible, because the offense is going nowhere without an extraordinary effort from someone else. If he’s better than 125, Marshall can screw up elsewhere and still win the game.
Don’t Let An Average Receiver Become a Superstar
Marshall’s tight ends lead the team in receiving, but they’re still not lighting it up for more than 40 yards per game. For tight ends, a combined 66 yards per game is absolutely stupendous. Xavier Gaines can also line up at quarterback and will throw it on occasion. Still, the tight ends shouldn’t beat you single-handedly. It goes without saying if they have a big enough game to beat you by themselves, you have other issues.
Although the tight ends are quite noteworthy, the bottom line is no one on the roster averages more than 38.4 yards per game receiving. I kind of wonder if it makes sense for WKU to load the box but play soft coverage in the back end. Basically stuff the run, spy the quarterback, and make the receivers beat you. This would eliminate big plays and force Marshall to dink and dunk its way through the air (and finish drives) with a quarterback that throws for less than 60 percent completions. No Thundering Herd receiver is a consistent threat week in and week out, so force them to be the ones to beat you. I’ll be interested to see how the Tops cover Marshall, but without a doubt, priority number one is stopping the run. If that is the case, all you need from your secondary is not give up huge chunk plays through the air.
Marshall is favored by 5.5 points according to Vegas Saturday. Marshall has won two in a row and stepped out of its mid-season doldrums, presumably. WKU has played well of late, including this last performance against Charlotte, when WKU continued its trend of preventing opponents from scoring and added its most points in a game all season (30) in the same contest. WKU has won four in a row, winning by a margin of 12.3 points per game. Western has utterly dominated its opponents’ offenses, not allowing any opponent to score more than 14 during that stretch.
Marshall is similar to WKU in many ways, but one thing that WKU has done throughout the year is get better. Marshall has seemed to stagnate at certain points this year. They may have had their “aha moment” against Florida Atlantic this past week in an impressive win, but I’m still not convinced Marshall can be consistent enough on both sides of the ball to win Conference USA. WKU has been way more consistent, and some injured players are starting to return for the Tops (Roger Cray). In theory, they should only get better moving forward. Western’s offense finally showed it can score in the 30s against an FBS opponent (Charlotte) and it seems things are coming together in all three phases.
I know Marshall is favored, but frankly, I don’t know why, other than the fact the Herd beat FAU. Marshall has given up 400 yards in all but two games, while WKU has only surrendered 400 yards twice. WKU has looked plain invincible defensively of late. What is to make me think a marginal and inconsistent offense (and defense) like Marshall is going to break the trend and actually beat WKU? I believe Western wins this one in another slugfest, but ultimately WKU controls the game. I’ve got WKU 23–Marshall 10.