Time and Date: Friday, December 25 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Location: Cramton Bowl — Montgomery, AL
Spread: Buffalo (-5)
ESPN FPI: Buffalo has 55.2% chance to win
All-time series: Marshall leads, 8-1
Last meeting: Marshall 48, Buffalo 14 — October 23, 2004
Marshall and Buffalo met as MAC rivals six times between 1999 and 2004. The Thundering Herd won all six, and not a single one of those matchups was particularly close. To find Buffalo’s most recent win in the series, you’ll have to travel back to 1959 — the first meeting between the programs.
Christmas and Camellias
College football, on Christmas? Yes, the 2020 Camellia Bowl will be the first college football game on Dec. 25 since the 2003 Hawaii Bowl. The gift of a bowl trophy won’t be wrapped under the tree. Buffalo and Marshall must compete for the extra Christmas present at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, AL.
The MAC runner-up and C-USA runner-up look to shed off disappointing performances in their conference championship games and finish the season strong. Buffalo (5-1, 5-0 MAC) is only one year removed from its first bowl victory ever, and the Bulls can now make it consecutive postseason victories with a win in Montgomery. Marshall (7-2, 4-1 C-USA) suffered a rare bowl defeat last year which snapped the program’s 7-game bowl winning streak, but the Thundering Herd still hold the FBS record for highest bowl winning percentage with a minimum of 10 games.
These teams combine for a 12-3 record, and this showdown at the Camellia Bowl should be one of the better matchups of Bowl Season — even if it comes with a lack of scoring.
Buffalo Bulls outlook
Rebounding from Detroit
An undefeated season was in play. Buffalo was ranked No. 23 in the AP Poll — the highest ranking in program history — when it pulled up to Ford Field in Detroit for the MAC Championship Game. There, disaster struck as the two-touchdown favorites suffered an excruciating second quarter, trailing 35-21 at halftime. While Buffalo sharpened its defense for the second half, the offense mustered just seven points and the Bulls fell 38-28 to Ball State. Now, Buffalo must put that loss aside and focus on bringing hardware back to Upstate New York. Last December, the Bulls defeated Charlotte 31-9 in the Bahamas Bowl to secure their first bowl victory in school history. Now, Buffalo can make it two-straight against another C-USA opponent in Marshall in the Camellia Bowl.
Re-establishing the run
There are two teams in the FBS with two running backs averaging over 100 yards per game. One is North Carolina, the other is Buffalo. The Bulls have been a problem for opposing defenses in the run game, with All-American halfback Jaret Patterson leading the nation with 178.7 yards per game. Patterson tied the FBS record for fewest games needed to register 1,000 rushing yards this season and he is a rangy running back — meaning he can score from practically anywhere on the field. Buffalo’s offensive line is one of the superior run blocking units in the country, and if Patterson makes one defender miss, he often has a reservation for the end zone. Through six games, the junior halfback registered 19 touchdowns.
Still, Buffalo’s backfield isn’t just one All-American. There’s another All-MAC halfback dominating the ground game. Kevin Marks has a 5-game streak of attaining at least 90 rushing yards, scoring a touchdown in each of his last four outings. Marks is a bulldozer, but he also comes with a significant burst of speed. He broke away for a 67-yard touchdown in the MAC Championship Game, leading Buffalo in rushing yards for the second-straight week.
Patterson and Marks didn’t quite experience the outcome they hoped for in the conference championship game. The duo combined for 140 rushing yards on 27 carries, and it was the first time in 2020 where neither running back eclipsed the century mark. Patterson even left the game in the third quarter with a right knee injury after he was gator rolled during a tackle. He re-entered the game in the fourth quarter, but only for one play. If not fully recovered, Patterson may play with a right knee brace in this contest, which could potentially affect his signature cutting ability.
Without the usual rushing production, Buffalo turned to the air. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease tossed a career-high 42 passes. While only putting up seven points in the second half, the Bulls saw ample success with the new offensive gameplan. Wide receiver Antonio Nunn posted 13 receptions and 182 yards, and if the team reverts to the passing attack in Montgomery, Nunn will play a massive role once again.
While the passing game succeeded to an extent against Ball State, the team needs to fix its dropping issues to become lethal in that regard.
Buffalo’s defense is solid, but not dominant to the extent of Marshall’s unit. However, the Bulls are playmakers on that side of the ball, scoring three touchdowns on defense and another off a blocked field goal this year.
The Bulls are turnover forcers, producing 1.7 takeaways per game. In the MAC Championship, First Team All-MAC middle linebacker James Patterson contributed to the turnover department while picking off his first pass of 2020. While his twin brother will be the focus for Marshall’s defense, Patterson will be an area of focus for the Thundering Herd offense all afternoon. He leads the team with 54 tackles and has established himself as one of the premier run-stoppers in the MAC.
Besides creating turnovers, Buffalo’s defense creates havoc as an elite pass rushing team. The Bulls rank in the top quartile of the FBS in racking up sacks, earning a hair under three per game. Malcolm Koonce is the chief disruptor. After leading the MAC in sacks a year ago, Koonce has five this year and is third on the team in tackles. Koonce aims to add more postseason accolades to his résumé after winning the 2019 Bahamas Bowl Defensive MVP last December.
Marshall Thundering Herd outlook
Cooling down offensively
When December hits Huntington, WV, the trees shed their leaves, the weather drops below 30, and Marshall’s offense freezes up. The Thundering Herd averaged 37.4 points per game in their seven wins to start the season. In their latest two outings, Marshall scored a combined 13 points and the result has been an 0-2 record — and neither loss was decided by one score.
The main difference is the sudden ineptitude of a passing attack that thrived through Marshall’s 7-0 start. Redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells completed 8/23 passes in the C-USA Championship Game, a 22-13 loss to UAB. In the prior game, Wells completed 18/35 passes and threw five interceptions to the Rice defense in a stunning 20-0 defeat.
Wells is a very talented quarterback, and his tremendous abilities were on full display in the Thundering Herd’s first seven contests. He passed for 16 touchdowns compared to four interceptions before the losing streak began, while completing 65.6 percent of his attempts. Wells needs to revert to his old self in the pocket to bolster Marshall’s offense, and his slew of weapons will benefit. Marshall has six receivers that total between 14 and 26 receptions in 2020 and six receivers that range from 175 to 398 receiving yards.
The clubhouse statistical leaders are tight end Xavier Gaines and wide receiver Corey Gammage, but Buffalo’s secondary cannot just focus on those two in order to stop the Thundering Herd’s passing game. Limiting the Herd from doing damage through the air will be especially important, considering that Marshall will be without a key cog in the backfield.
Running without the entire herd
Marshall’s star running back, 2019 C-USA MVP Brenden Knox, opted out of the Camellia Bowl in order to focus on the NFL Draft. This leaves the Thundering Herd without their primary offensive weapon, a workhorse running back who produced 887 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns through nine games. That leaves Sheldon Evans and Knowledge McDaniel to carry the load in the running game.
Evans is second on the team with 248 rushing yards and four touchdowns. This will be his first week working out of the role as feature back, and McDaniel likely moves up to become his secondary back. Regardless of who is lining up at the position, Marshall’s offensive line creates enough opportunities for success. The Thundering Herd are dominant at blocking for the run, anchored by right guard Cain Madden — a senior All-American selection.
Only one team allows fewer than 13 points per game in college football this season. It’s Marshall, and even in the recent two losses, the defense played well enough to win. The Thundering Herd are second in rushing defense, permitting under 90 yards per game, and that level of success is needed to contain Patterson and Marks. Marshall also ranks in the top 20 in passing yards allowed per game, and the team is sound across the board when it comes to defense.
Outside linebacker Tavante Beckett won the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year award for his team-leading 90 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries, and 2 forced fumbles. Beckett will be the architect in stopping the run game, but when Buffalo drops back to pass, he serves as a monstrous pass rusher as well. Also contributing on the pass rushing front is defensive end Darius Hodge, who owns a team-high 6.5 sacks this year. In the MAC Championship Game, Buffalo’s offensive line ended a 9-game streak of not allowing a sack, and Marshall’s defense aims to prevent the Bulls from starting another streak in this bowl game.
Keys to the game
Buffalo: Rattle Grant Wells. Rice and UAB experienced considerable success with pressuring the redshirt freshman quarterback. Wells’ last two games have been nightmarish, completing 26/58 passes while his team scored 13 combined points. With Knox out of the equation, Marshall likely shifts its pass-calling slightly toward the passing game, so Buffalo must apply pressure and take away the short checkdown throws.
This game’s result is likely dependent on if Wells can catch fire from the pocket or not. When he has in the past, Marshall’s offense becomes unstoppable to an extent, especially given the amount of deep threat targets on this team. Buffalo cannot allow this to happen, and the Bulls must take away that dimension of Marshall’s offense and force the Herd to win with their backup running backs.
Marshall: Study Ball State’s film. The Cardinals engineered the perfect gameplan to stifle the Bulls in the MAC Championship Game. Marshall, like Ball State, is stacked with run-stoppers at the linebacker position, so the Thundering Herd can employ some of the Cardinals’ same methods. Ball State contained the outsides and funneled Buffalo running backs into the middle of the line. Stacking the box allowed a horde of defenders to meet Patterson or Marks almost instantly. Instead of making one or two guys miss, Patterson and Marks had to dodge an entire swarm. Marshall owns the second best run defense in the FBS at 88.9 yards per game, so Beckett and the Thundering Herd should be able to employ this tactic against Buffalo’s talented tandem.
Then, Buffalo will shift its offensive backup plan of airing it out. While the Bulls proved in the MAC Championship Game that they’re solid through the air even when throwing 42 times, they’re not playing to their ultimate strength of the run game if that aspect is taken away from them.
Both teams are stacked with quality offensive lines. Both teams are strong in the pass rushing game. Both teams are led by an aggressive, tackling machine of a linebacker. Both teams have tremendous talent at the running back position, but Marshall will be without Knox.
The loss of Knox does no favors to an offense which is already in the midst of a struggle. Buffalo’s running backs will both be in Montgomery, aiming to bounce back after a disappointing showing in Detroit. Patterson and Marks won’t combine for 400 rushing yards against Marshall’s elite run defense, but the two can still manage to create enough offense for Buffalo to emerge in front. The Thundering Herd keep it close by virtue of the defense, but it won’t be enough to seal another bowl victory under Doc Holliday.
Buffalo 21, Marshall 16