- Time and Date: Saturday, September 17 at 5:00 p.m. ET
- Network: NFL Network
- Location: Doyt L. Perry Stadium — Bowling Green, OH
- Spread: Marshall (-17)
- ESPN FPI: Marshall has 95.6% chance to win
- All-time series: Bowling Green leads, 21-8
- Last meeting: Bowling Green 44, Marshall 28 — September 18, 2010
- Current streak: Bowling Green, 1 (2010)
Setting the scene
Week 2 was Marshall’s world and every other college football team was living in it. The Thundering Herd paraded around Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend following a massive 26-21 upset over the No. 9 Fighting Irish — marking the second AP Top 10 win in program history. Receiving a litany of accolades and national attention for the win, Marshall (2-0) is now knocking on the door of the AP Poll. Charles Huff’s squad is situated just four votes shy of No. 25 Oregon, and a win over Bowling Green could be the fuel the Thundering Herd need to skyrocket into the rankings for the third different season of the College Football Playoff era (along with 2014 and 2020).
Playing the spoiler role is Bowling Green (0-2), which hosts homecoming at “The Doyt” on Saturday. The Falcons initially started off the season strong, claiming a 17-7 lead over UCLA in the second quarter by means of a strong defense and special teams. But the wheels have fallen off drastically since that moment, and Bowling Green now marinates in a winless record after its first loss to FCS competition since 2017. The Falcons lost a buy game to Eastern Kentucky 59-57 last Saturday in seven overtimes, and the loss was gut-wrenching in every manner possible. Prior to the elongated exchange of two-point attempts in the modern college overtime, the Falcons yielded the game-tying touchdown on the final play of regulation — one of many plays where they stood one stop away from a 1-1 record.
The former MAC rivals are trending in opposite directions entering this Saturday evening showcase in Ohio. Marshall pulled off a major stunner last week. Now Bowling Green hopes to catch college football’s reigning flavor of the week by surprise.
Marshall Thundering Herd outlook
When looking across Marshall’s roster, it’s easy to see Charles Huff struck plenty of gold in the transfer portal in his second offseason as the program’s head coach. A significant portion of the Thundering Herd’s starters and key contributors weren’t in Huntington, WV last season, but they’ve melted together into the Kelly green and white. The result is a squad which could become the first-ever Sun Belt team to crash the New Year’s Six.
One of these notable transfers is former Texas Tech quarterback Henry Colombi. He started nine games as a Red Raider in 2020 and 2021 and his poise and confidence from his experience was evident Saturday. Marshall kept the offense grounded against Notre Dame, but when Colombi was called on to make a play, the 23-year old quarterback delivered. With under six minutes to go and facing a deficit, he scanned the Fighting Irish defense for a few moments and made the perfect decision to connect with tight end Devin Miller for the go-ahead touchdown.
Colombi’s efficiency has been off the charts this year. Through two games and 47 passes, he ranks No. 1 in the FBS with a completion percentage of 85.1 — hitting his target on 40 of those attempts.
Despite the smart-decision making of the team’s quarterback, Marshall’s offense is primarily centered on the rushing attack. Entering the season, the Thundering Herd fielded one of the top halfbacks in college football in Rasheen Ali. Ali eclipsed the 1,400-yard barrier last season and tied for the FBS lead in rushing touchdowns, but he has yet to take the field in 2022 — electing to take a leave of absence for personal reasons in August. However, Marshall Football’s official Twitter account tweeted a photo Tuesday night of Ali practicing with the team, suggesting his availability could change as soon as this Saturday.
Even without Ali, the rushing attack has been in tremendous shape through two contests. Florida State transfer Khalan Laborn assumed the primary running back duties and he is the most recent recipient of the Doak Walker Award National Running Back of the Week honors. Laborn chipped in a career-high 163 rushing yards on Notre Dame, posting one touchdown on the Fighting Irish in the upset.
Outside of Laborn, the notable playmakers on Marshall’s offense are wide receivers Talik Keaton and Corey Gammage, as well as Miller at tight end. The Thundering Herd’s passes have mainly been directed to the flats this season, and all three of the team’s reception leaders are currently averaging under 9.5 per catch. Keaton demonstrated the ability to play explosive last year when averaging over 14 yards per reception and Gammage proved his worth as a No. 1 receiver with 78 catches and 869 yards in 2021. Once Marshall opens up the verticality of its aerial attack more — which may not be this game if the score mirrors the spread — these two wideouts should see a spike in their numbers.
On the defensive side, it’s hard to find many complaints thus far. As good as the rushing attack was, it was the defense which served as the driving force to Marshall’s triumph in South Bend. The Thundering Herd intercepted three passes including Steven Gilmore’s 37-yard pick-six which ultimately sealed the result. Steven, the brother of former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, is a ballhawk of his own nature. That pick-six signified Gilmore’s seventh interception in a Thundering Herd uniform, and Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald must be aware of his ability to jump routes when targeting the cornerback’s vicinity.
Marshall stifled Notre Dame’s passing attack to a remarkable extent with three interceptions, but the Thundering Herd run defense was arguably as strong. They limited Notre Dame to 130 yards on 37 attempts, preventing any ball carrier from exceeding 44 yards and any running back from topping 33. The star linebacking combo of reigning First Team All-C-USA selection Abraham Beauplan and the unit’s leading tackler Eli Neal lead the charge in making life difficult for opposing running backs. Overall, Marshall holds opponents to 2.4 yards per rush which ranks top 20 in the FBS.
Bowling Green Falcons
Bowling Green is in desperate need of a spark after Week 2’s brutal loss to an FCS opponent. Last season, Scot Loeffler’s squad pulled off several surprises in the non-conference slate by upsetting a 9-4 Minnesota team, remaining within one score of Tennessee at halftime, and comfortably flying past FCS competition, but those results aren’t translating into 2022. Faced with an early 0-2 start, the urgency needs to be shown if Bowling Green wants to snap its six-year skid without qualifying for bowl eligibility.
The good news: Bowling Green’s offense looked noticeably improved in Week 2 after a dormant Week 1 showing. When the Falcons posted 17 points at UCLA, 10 of those could be attributed to the special teams (blocked punt for touchdown, field goal off muffed punt recovery). But the offense started and finished drives of their own last week as quarterback Matt McDonald delivered a career-high five touchdown passes with 283 yards through the air. McDonald also demonstrated his escapability with 64 rushing yards on five attempts, scrambling for a 31-yard touchdown in the defeat.
McDonald has enjoyed ample protection from an offensive line which allowed just two sacks in Week 1 and zero in Week 2, and this added barrier could help him elevate his game as a passer. So far, McDonald is distributing the wealth without a clear-cut No. 1 option. In the absence of the team’s 2021 receptions leader Austin Osborne, the Falcons have four receivers showcasing relatively even production this season — as wide receivers CJ Lewis and Odieu Hilaire, tight end Christian Sims, and running back Ta’ron Keith all have six to eight receptions on a similar number of targets.
Keith also serves as the team’s top rusher through two games with 61 yards. As one of 18 FBS teams averaging under 100 yards per game in the rushing department, Bowling Green hopes to see an uptick in production here, albeit facing difficult Week 3 competition in Marshall’s front seven. Jaison Patterson gathered a team-high 18 carries last week and is expected split time with Keith in the running back room.
Bowling Green’s defense, which suffocated Minnesota in 14-10 fashion last fall, was expected to be the team’s calling card in 2022. But through two data points, Bowling Green fields the second-worst scoring defense in the country by allowing 52 points per game — although going to seven overtimes in Week 2 considerably raised that average when only 38 points were yielded in regulation.
Two of the Falcons’ leading tacklers stemmed from the transfer portal. Former Georgia State strong safety Chris Bacon and former Wake Forest middle linebacker DJ Taylor tie for the most tackles on the roster with 14. Their newfound presence should very well complement the three incumbent 2021 All-MAC selections — outside linebacker Darren Anders, free safety Jordan Anderson, and defensive end Karl Brooks.
Anders will be tasked with stifling Marshall’s high-powered rushing attack as one of the conference’s premier run stoppers in 2021. Anderson, along with many of Bowling Green’s defensive backs, appears in the box quite often and has enjoyed a strong start to another All-MAC campaign with 11 tackles and an interception through two games.
With all of this talent on defense, along with a top 10 pass rush with 4.0 sacks per game, what’s been wrong with Bowling Green’s defense? So far, missing tackles and blown coverages are two of the recurring themes this year. Only five teams give up more passing yards per outing than the Falcons’ 340.5, and of all teams surrendering more than 320 per game, nobody allows a higher completion rate than Bowling Green — a far cry from last year’s defensive numbers. Unless Marshall deviates from its early-season identity, the Falcons can expect fewer reps containing the pass this week, so more attention can be diverted to stopping Laborn and the run game.
This is a quintessential trap game for the road team. Marshall is fresh off a win at Notre Dame and the Thundering Herd must go on the road to face an 0-2 squad — a Bowling Green team which pulled off a shocking upset in non-conference play a year ago.
Although this one could be closer than the spread indicates, Marshall still has an upper hand in many areas, especially on the defensive side of the ball. While the Falcons have struggled to contain both the air and ground through two games, Marshall has been stellar in limiting opponents’ production in both facets alike. If the Thundering Herd defense performs remotely similar to last week, Bowling Green will struggle generating 20 on the scoreboard. And on the opposite side, Marshall’s potent rushing attack with Laborn (and possibly Ali) might be too much for the Falcons to handle.
Prediction: Marshall 31, Bowling Green 16