Herd vs. FIU: Matchup is a battle of the best in C-USA East
HUNTINGTON - It’s everything a player could wish for in a regular-season finale.
When Marshall University and FIU meet at noon Saturday in Riccardo Silva Stadium, it will be a matchup of two of Conference USA’s best teams going at it with much at stake for both sides.
For Marshall, a share of the C-USA East Division title is on the line, even though tiebreakers essentially eliminate the Thundering Herd from playing in the Conference USA championship game.
For FIU, the stakes are even bigger. A win and the Panthers will represent the East Division in the C-USA championship for the first time in program history.
“It will be a great challenge for us,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. “I know our players are looking forward to it.”
Last year, Marshall dropped a 41-30 contest in Huntington to FIU - a game when turnovers hindered Marshall early and the team could never regroup and a late rally fell short. In addition to being unable to hold on to the football, FIU moved on Marshall’s defense at will - something that has been outside of the norm in the last two years against the Herd.
Marshall players haven’t forgotten that performance, and are looking to atone for it by inflicting some disappointment on FIU in the form of a win that would eliminate the Panthers from the championship race.
“Looking back at last year, we lost this game last year, so it’s a big game for us,” Marshall linebacker Chase Hancock said. “It plays a lot. If you look at the film, we just weren’t a sound defense. To look at the improvements that we’ve made, compared to last year, it’s amazing.”
Marshall’s defense has been stellar over the last three weeks, allowing the opposition only 181 yards of total offense per game. That figure includes the first back-to-back performances of holding opposing offenses to less than 200 yards in 23 years.
Continuing such a streak of success will be no easy task against an FIU offense that is the most efficient in C-USA. The Panthers lead C-USA in third-down percentage (47.1) and pass efficiency while also leading in turnover margin.
The surge is led by quarterback James Morgan, who is completing 66 percent of his passes while also throwing 26 touchdowns to just five interceptions on the year. Morgan’s pass efficiency rating leads C-USA and he heads an offense that is averaging 6.5 yards per play with a nice balance of run and pass.
In addition to Morgan, the Panthers feature several running backs - all of which have brought something different to the table.
Anthony Jones is back after recovering from a gunshot wound early in the year and Napoleon Maxwell leads the team in yards and touchdowns while averaging more than five yards per rush.
The balance has been a credit to a veteran offensive line which has kept Morgan in a clean pocket and pushed forward for yardage in the run game consistently.
“They are doing a great job at managing that offense and taking care of the ball,” Holliday said.
The ability to take care of the football will essentially dictate the game for the Herd. Marshall’s defense has performed well enough this season that the team has been in position to win all games in which the team turned the ball over one or fewer times.
Trouble has crept in for the Herd when ball security was an issue - something FIU excels at. The Panthers have forced 19 turnovers, which includes 15 interceptions.
Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green has improved in his decision-making since returning from injury.
“That’s it,” Herd offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said. “Look at our season and that’s it. We are 6-0 when we have one turnover or less, which is what our goal is, and we’re 1-3 when we don’t. We have to protect the ball. That’s everything for us.”
Marshall lost the last two games in the series against FIU - last year’s 41-30 loss in Huntington and the 2016 matchup when the Herd fell 31-14.