Virginia Tech-Marshall Preview: Bowl Streak on the Line

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Ryan Willis Damon Hazelton Virginia Tech
Ryan Willis and the Hokies will take on Marshall this Saturday. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech (5-6) will face Marshall (8-3) this Saturday from Lane Stadium, and the Hokies’ 25-year bowl streak is on the line.  Lose, and Tech will miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 1992.  Win, and they’ll go bowling yet again, quite possibly to the Military Bowl in Annapolis or the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.  Neither sounds like an ideal destination for late December, particularly Detroit, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The Thundering Herd come into this game with an 8-3 record, and they are going bowling regardless of what happens on Saturday. Their three losses have come at the hands of NC State (37-20), Middle Tennessee State (34-24) and Southern Miss (26-24).  They’ve won their last three games, and they’ll come into Lane Stadium in Saturday sporting one of the top-rated defenses in the country.

As Justin Fuente has said, the end of the season is a playoff atmosphere for the Hokies.  They beat UVA to survive, and now they must beat Marshall to survive.  Let’s take a closer look at the Thundering Herd.

The Marshall Offense: A Good Matchup for the Hokies

Marshall’s offense ranks No. 110 nationally in S&P+ offense.  They achieved that ranking while facing the following defenses…

Miami (OH): No. 54
Eastern Kentucky: FCS
NC State: No. 60
Western Kentucky: No. 75
Middle Tennessee State: No. 45
Old Dominion: No. 114
Florida Atlantic: No. 56
Southern Miss: No. 17
Charlotte: No. 88
UTSA: No. 98
FIU: No. 85

Marshall faced only one Power 5 team all season.  The rest of their opponents were lower-level FBS teams, most of which had mediocre-to-bad defenses.  Only Southern Miss fielded a defense that was ranked better than No. 45 nationally.  The Thundering Herd put a poor offense on the field despite not facing very much defensive competition.

Some of Marshall’s struggles can be put down to the fact that they are playing a young quarterback.  Isaiah Green (6-2, 202, r-Fr.) has had a solid season for a freshman, but he’s still a freshman who has put up mediocre numbers.

Passing: 151-of-271 (55.7%) for 2,018 yards, 14 touchdowns, 9 interceptions
Rushing (excluding sacks): 26 carries, 95 yards, 3.7 ypc

Green’s completion percentage is pretty low for this day and age, and he’s not a great running threat either.  He’s also thrown nine interceptions in eight games.

Green’s backup is Alex Thomson (6-5, 233, r-Jr.).  He’s more experienced, and he has played some this year.  However, he’s not particularly good either.

Passing: 53-of-100 (53%), 506 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs
Rushing: 24 carries, 129 yards, 5.4 ypc, 1 TD

On paper, Thomson is a better runner.  However, the Marshall coaching staff chose to go with the younger player and to build for the future.  That’s a decision they could afford to make because of the very strong Thundering Herd defense, which we’ll talk about later.

Marshall’s offensive line is young as well, and small in certain spots.  Here are the starters from left to right…

LT Will Ulmer (6-5, 299, r-So.)
LG Jordan Dowrey (6-1, 292, r-Sr.)
C Levi Brown (6-4, 280, r-Jr.)
RG Cain Madden (6-3, 316, r-So.)
RT Tarik Adams (6-3, 307, r-So.)

Dowrey is Marshall’s most experienced offensive lineman, though at 6-1 he’s very short for a player at his position.  Center Levi Brown doesn’t carry much weight for a guy with his frame, while right tackle Tarik Adams is built more like an offensive guard. 

Four different players have received significant carries for Marshall this year.

Tyler King (5-11, 190, r-So.): 108 carries, 655 yards, 6.1 ypc, 4 TDs
Keion Davis (6-1, 215, r-Sr.): 80 carries, 308 yards, 3.9 ypc, 1 TD
Anthony Anderson (6-2, 240, r-Sr.): 66 carries, 264 yards, 4.0 ypc, 8 TDs
Brenden Knox (6-0, 209, r-Fr.): 56 carries, 281 yards, 5.0 ypc, 1 TD

Marshall ranks No. 69 nationally in S&P+ rushing offense.  On the whole it’s a mediocre ground game, though they haven’t gotten much help from the passing game at times.  Here are their game-by-game rushing numbers…

Miami (OH): 171 yards, 4.5 ypc
Eastern Kentucky: 89 yards, 3.2 ypc
NC State: 54 yards, 2.5 ypc
Western Kentucky: 113 yards, 3.4 ypc
MTSU: 209 yards, 3.9 ypc
ODU: 319 yards, 7.1 ypc
FAU: 233 yards, 4.9 ypc
Southern Miss: 31 yards, 1.4 ypc
Charlotte: 147 yards, 3.9 ypc
UTSA: 118 yards, 3.2 ypc
FIU: 154 yards, 4.8 ypc

Marshall’s running game turned it up a notch during the middle of the season, but have fallen back to earth in recent weeks.  Overall, they averaged 4.0 yards per carry or more against just four FBS opponents this season.

The Thundering Herd have solid receivers, though they haven’t been able to make as big an impact as they would have liked this year because of the issues at quarterback.

Tyre Brady (6-3, 206, r-Sr.): 64 catches, 890 yards, 13.9 ypc, 9 TDs.  Brady is a transfer from Miami.

Obi Obialo (6-3, 213, Jr.): 34 catches, 436 yards, 12.8 ypc, 4 TDs.  Obialo is a transfer from Oklahoma State, where he was originally a walk-on.

Though Marshall’s receivers concern me against Virginia Tech’s cornerbacks, overall this is the best matchup for the Virginia Tech defense has had since they played William & Mary way back in the second week of the season.

Will Ryan Willis and the Hokies be able to operate against Marshall’s highly-ranked defense? (Photo by Jon Fleming)

The Marshall Defense: One of the Best Small-Conference Defenses in America

Going back 15-20 years, Marshall football has been known as a program that puts up a lot of points, but doesn’t play much defense.  The opposite is true in 2018, as the Thundering Herd have a defense that has done a great job covering for an ineffective offense this season.  Let’s take a look at some of their advanced rankings…

S&P+ Defense: No. 7
Success Rate: No. 10
Marginal Efficiency: No. 14
IsoPPP (big plays): No. 35
Rushing S&P+: No. 18
Passing S&P+: No. 19

This is a good unit, and they have a couple of former Virginia Tech All-Americans on staff: Cornell Brown, who coaches the defensive ends, and JC Price, who coaches the defensive tackles.  Brown and Price were a big part of Virginia Tech starting their bowl streak back in 1993.  How ironic is it that they’ll come to Lane Stadium on Saturday with the goal of ending it?

That being said, here is Marshall’s offensive competition this year in terms of the S&P+ rankings…

Miami (OH): No. 82
Eastern Kentucky: FCS
NC State: No. 23
Western Kentucky: No. 118
Middle Tennessee State: No. 81
Old Dominion: No. 82
Florida Atlantic: No. 39
Southern Miss: No. 119
Charlotte: No. 123
UTSA: No. 129
FIU: No. 76

Marshall has a good defense, but their statistics are inflated to a certain extent by their level of competition.  They faced four teams that ranked No. 119 or worse in offensive S&P+, and only two of their opponents ranked in the top 40.  The Virginia Tech offense will be the third best offense they face all season, in terms of S&P+ rating (No. 64).

One reason for Marshall’s defensive performance this year is that they have a lot of seniors and juniors on that side of the ball.  Experience matters, as Virginia Tech fans know all too well.  Here’s a look at their starting defense…

DE Ty Tyler (6-3, 262, r-Jr.)
NT Ryan Bee (6-7, 280, r-Sr.)
DT Malik Thompson (6-6, 282, r-Sr.)
DE Juwon Young (6-2, 250, r-Sr.)
LB Artis Johnson (6-1, 222, r-Sr.)
LB Frankie Hernandez (6-2, 222, r-Sr.)
LB Chase Hancock (6-2, 223, r-Sr.)
CB Chris Jackson (6-0, 188, Jr.)
SS Malik Grant (6-2, 200, r-Jr.)
FS Nazeeh Johnson (5-10, 183, r-So.)
CB Kereon Merrell (5-11, 177, r-Jr.)

10 of those 11 players have redshirted, 10 of those 11 players are juniors or older, and every starter on defense is in at least his third year in the program.  Compare that to Virginia Tech’s defense, which features seven of 11 players who have redshirted, two of 11 players who are juniors or older, and six of 11 players who are at least in their third year in the program.

Defensive end Ty Tyler leads the Marshall defense in sacks with seven, and overall the Thundering Herd are tied for 10th in the country with 36 sacks.  They also have 81 tackles for loss, which ranks No. 34 nationally.

The Marshall defense ranks No. 16 nationally with 23 forced turnovers.  However, that is mostly offset by the fact that their own offense has turned the ball over 22 times.

Special Teams

Marshall ranks No. 90 nationally in special teams S&P+.  They’ve had three field goals and a punt blocked, though they’ve also blocked a field goal and two punts of their own.  Here are their S&P+ rankings for each individual special teams unit…

S&P+ overall: No. 90
FG Value: No. 104
Punt Efficiency: No. 60
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 89
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 18
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 2

Like Virginia Tech, Marshall’s punt return efficiency number gets a big boost because the Thundering Herd have blocked a punt for a touchdown (Tech has blocked two for touchdowns).  However, the fact that they’ve had three field goals blocked severely limits their overall special teams ranking, though it’s important to note that their special teams as a whole isn’t as bad as their overall ranking indicates. 

Here’s how those numbers compare to Virginia Tech…

S&P+ overall: No. 65
FG Value: No. 99
Punt Efficiency: No. 28
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 2
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 74 (imagine how bad this would be without the two blocked punts)
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 59

Like Marshall, the Hokies’ ranking is limited because of field goal kicking.  However, in Tech’s case it’s not because their field goals have been blocked, but because they’ve struggled to connect on kicks from beyond 40 yards.

Special teams will likely cancel each other out on Saturday, though if either team can generate a big play, it could give them the advantage on the scoreboard at the end of four quarters.

Virginia Tech-Marshall Final Thoughts

There are rumors on another board that not all of the Marshall players have 100% bought into this game, and as a result they haven’t had a good week of practice.  I believe those rumors, for what it’s worth, because I know where they originate from.  It’s been freezing cold in Huntington this week, and rain is in the forecast for Saturday.  The Marshall players have already won eight games and qualified for a bowl, and they feel like they’ve been forced to stand around in the cold and rain for an extra week just so the administration can get an extra check, and get an extra home game a few years down the line, neither of which will affect the current players.

There’s no guarantee that Marshall will play poorly on Saturday, of course.  They could definitely come out fired up.  But I’m expecting a pretty blasé atmosphere in Lane Stadium on Saturday, and I actually think that could help the Hokies.  Big, loud crowds in Lane these days don’t seem to do anything except get the opposing team fired up, because schools like Georgia Tech, Boston College and Miami don’t play in front of raucous crowds very often.

Quite frankly, this game should mean more to Virginia Tech’s players than the Marshall players.  Marshall has already had a great season.  They don’t need to beat the Hokies to validate what they’ve accomplished this year.  However, if Tech loses to Marshall, this group of VT players will go down as the group that lost the bowl streak.  They’ve got a lot to play for.

But the main thing I like is the matchup against Marshall’s offense.  The Thundering Herd offense is one of the least efficient in the country, and the Virginia Tech defense has played better in three of their last four games.  They seem to be peaking right now, and I think they’ll play their best game of the season since Florida State, assuming they are dialed in mentally, as they should be considering what’s on the line.

Marshall is a solid 8-3 football team, but I think the matchups favor the Hokies in this one.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Marshall 17

Will Stewart’s Take: I think this game, more than most, will come down to intangibles. Virginia Tech has a definable goal for which to play (a bowl game), but Marshall doesn’t. This is also a decent matchup for the Hokies, whereas many games they played this year weren’t.

After typing that paragraph, I don’t know what to type next. I think it’s really that simple.

The thing I don’t have a feel for is what the crowd is going to be like on Saturday. I sit in a group of roughly 15 season ticket holders, and only one of them is coming on Saturday. I don’t know if that’s representative of Hokie Nation as a whole, or not. But I do think the ones who are there, whether it’s 30,000 or 50,000 or more, will be into it.

It’s going to be an odd atmosphere, and maybe that’ll make it better, but maybe it’ll make it worse. Nothing would surprise me in this game.

But I will still fall back on what I opened with. Matchups aside, I just don’t see where Marshall has a lot to play for, but I know Virginia Tech does. If Virginia Tech handles the success of beating Virginia properly and stays focused, I think the Hokies win.

Will’s Prediction:  Virginia Tech 24, Marshall 17 (look at that, same score as Chris)

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23 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Brown now seems like a bad departure from our staff. There is something to me about having coaches that have played that position, especially on defense, to further motivate the players.

    Lost Gray & Brown to pay a special team’s coach for mediocrity. That being said, I do like that Jack Tyler is part of Bud’s team now, always thought he was a heady player.

  2. 24-17 is too conservative. I sense a good game coming our way………finally.
    Hokies outplay the Thundering Turd 31-17.
    On to Detroit. Ouch.

  3. Well, I don’t know about the rest of Hokie Nation, but I have been ill with the worst cold I have had in a long time this whole week and I WILL BE THERE come hell or high water! This team deserves our support!❤️VT🏈🦃

  4. If you don’t think the ‘Herd can bring it on Saturday just because the goddang weather is less than great, you’ve got another thing coming. Marshall might not be treating this game as a bowl in FLA, true; but they have alot on the line as far as pride. Look for their defense to play solid and the Hokies to have to play “winning” football to get the job done. Go JC and Cornell…..sort of lol.

  5. Ahhhh last game in Lane for 2018, time to celebrate this team’s opportunity to continue the bowl streak with a win over the Herd. What’s happen is over it’s time to do our part and out the Hokies over. So join our crew in Section 7 and be in the greatest section in all of sports entertainment!!!

    Let’s Go…Hokies!!!!
    Beat the Herd!!!

  6. The Marshall Defense is going to A gap pressure RW until he makes a bad decision. So, give Peoples 20 touches, Mclease gets 10, TW gets 5, give Keene 10, and then divide the rest among the receivers…..named BPT (big play tre). Worst thing that can happen is we lose, ruin the bowl streak and solidify this team as very poor. Why not beat Marshall 62-0. Let’s Go!

  7. So basically don’t make their terrible O looked like the Pats, and don’t let their “ok” non-P5 defense look like the Ray Lewis ravens of 2000. SHOULD be no problem but we know how this season has gone.

  8. I saw the comment that our defense may be peaking and has played better in 3 of the last 4 weeks. They played well at the end of the UVA game but they gave up 31 points in the 2nd half with TD passes of 12, 29 and 75 yards and a 12-yard run. The prior 4 games we gave up 31, 38, 49 and 52 points. I can’t find 3 good games in there. Maybe it can look better if you consider offensive TOs and 3 and outs. If we can play 4 quarters of good defense we will win. I think we will put up some points. Just excited to be playing for something! We would still have to win the bowl game to avoid breaking the non-losing season streak.

  9. Marshall does have a few things to play for in this game.A chance to win 10 games,to beat an ACC team,a win for Two former Hokie players coaching there.

  10. Hope there is enough left in the tank after last week to give the effort needed to get it done. Hokies should have more “want to” but, seeing is believing. More talent alone, won’t get it done for this team (cough…ODU…cough).

  11. Our young players on defense have been improving every week, despite some very difficult match ups. The defensive problems have resulted from playing against large strong offensive lines that have worn them down in the second half. I don’t see that happening against Marshall. If we stop them consistently then the offense will be under less pressure to score, which has been where they have struggled this season. I think we win this by 3 TDs. GO Hokies.

    1. The experience gained by playing some good competition over the past couple of months should only help our young players on defense. They are far from reaching their potential, but they aren’t wide-eyed rookies anymore.

  12. The Marshall defense looks under-sized? The DTs and LBs? I know that does not mean that they are not good but seems undersized?

    1. Marshall 280 and 282 at DT. LBs are in the 220s. I think a lot has to do with how they play at that weight, we’ve had quite a few DTs over the years 280 and under. Hewitt is about 280 (I suspect he weights less than that), and over the years, folks like Woody Baron were less. It all depends on how strong the Marshall DTs are. And 220s for linebackers is not all that unusual, we’ve had an upswing lately in our LBs to get to the 230s and 240s.

      Meaning, I don’t really know what to expect, I haven’t seen a single Marshall game this year.

      1. I am more concerned about the 6-7 and 6-6 height of the starting DT and NT given the challenges Willis had last week with getting his passes swatted by that 6-7 Wahoo/crane. VT has more to play for so I think that wins the day. Good news, we are still going to play in December this year regardless. Ha!

  13. Interesting Game to say the least. Two old Hokies bring their Defense to Lane, Very interesting. Who wants it the Most… VT.

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