Conference USA runner-up Marshall will play Maryland in the 2013 Northrop Grumman Military Bowl on Dec. 27, heading to Annapolis to face a Terps team that went 7-5 in the ACC despite a rash of injuries throughout the season.
The Thundering Herd finished 9-4 but were unable to hang with Rice in Saturday's conference championship game, falling to the Owls—despite being favored—by the score of 41-24. Still, with quarterback Rakeem Cato at the helm, Marshall has one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the country and should not be taken lightly.
Maryland is bowling for the first time in Randy Edsall's three-year tenure as head coach, winning seven games after going 6-18 in his first two seasons. Injuries have plagued the Terps on both sides of the ball, but a 4-0 start and some pluck down the stretch ensured their eligibility—and then some.
Date: Dec. 27, 2013
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Location: Annapolis, Md.
Licking Their Wounds
Marshall is capable of playing better than it did against Rice. A lot better. The Thundering Herd proved all season that they are a team to be reckoned with, but they showed up small on the biggest stage of the year, and now there are some serious questions.
Head coach Doc Holliday will need to pick his team up by the boot straps, console it after an ugly defeat and duly prepare it to play a pretty good opponent. Marshall has played up to competition all season, but it's never had to come off such a drastic low point. How will it respond?
Avoid Stupid Turnovers
Marshall's offense is typically a well-oiled machine, and Maryland has been prone to letting up points to good units this season. But when the Thundering Herd are stopped, it's not always by an opposing defense. Quite often, they manage to stop themselves.
In four losses this year, Marshall has lost the turnover battle by an average of minus-1.5, tied for 101st in America. The Terps don't force turnovers at an amazing clip or anything, but they're just good and aggressive enough to take advantage of opportunities when given.
Marshall needs to play a clean game.
Despite being the "high-major" team in this game, Maryland actually finished well below Marshall in the Football Outsiders F/+ rankings, checking in at No. 64 to the Herd's No. 42. But there's one spot where the Terps hold a major advantage: special teams.
According to those rankings, UMD had the 14th-best special teams in the country this year, excelling in the always disrespected (but frequently decisive) phase of the game. By contrast, Marshall had the 98th-best special teams in the country, bungling all of the little things that can decide the outcome of games.
Maryland needs to dominate the third phase, covering kicks and punts well while racking up some yards on its own returns. That is the best way to negate Marshall's big advantage on offense.
Maryland has made the most of its red-zone trips in wins this year, scoring on 29 of 31 occasions, according to cfbstats.com. In losses, however, that 94 percent clip drops down to 50 percent, and the touchdown rate drops from 54 percent to 33 percent.
The Terps might not get many opportunities to score touchdowns in this game. Even if they do, there's a chance they will need to make the most of each one: Marshall's offense is that good.
UMD needs to convert where it matters most.
Offense: WR Tommy Shuler
Rakeem Cato is as steady as they come under center, but Shuler is his go-to target and often the key that makes this passing game run. Stopping Marshall's offense begins and ends with stopping him, which is exactly why stopping Marshall's offense is so difficult.
Even Virginia Tech—arguably the best defense in America, especially in the secondary—let Shuler go for 10 catches and 120 yards earlier this season. Granted, that game went into overtime, but his performance against future NFL cornerbacks was nothing short of spectacular.
Maryland's secondary has been banged up all season, but the injuries have forced younger players to step up and learn on the fly, which they have been fairly successful at doing. Still, Shuler will be favored to gain the upper hand.
Defense: DT James Rouse
Rouse has been solid up the middle for Marshall this year, coming up big in some of its most important games. Even when the defense was shredded for 51 points against Middle Tennessee State, Rouse came up big with 3.0 tackles for loss—a feat he accomplished multiple times this season.
Maryland is without its two most dynamic playmakers—injured wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. To that end, the Terps cannot afford any negative plays: They need to move forward on each snap and afford obvious passing downs.
Rouse is Marshall's best chance of throwing a wrench in Maryland's running game up the middle; he will be counted on to plug some gaps and help create negative gains.
Offense: QB C.J. Brown
Brown was a (deep) sleeper Heisman candidate for the first few weeks this season, playing near-perfect football as the dual-threat leader of this offense and helping UMD start the season 4-0.
The wheels started to come off in a 63-0 loss at Florida State, and things got worse when his two best receivers, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, suffered season-ending injuries against Wake Forest. In between those two games, Brown himself missed a win over Virginia with an injury, and he would miss one more game (against Clemson) before the season was through.
But in recent weeks, Brown has gotten healthy and started to play near—if not at—the level he played toward the start of the season. With so few playmakers left around him, Brown's play will be paramount in keeping up with the Herd.
Defense: LB Marcus Whitfield
Like Brown, Whitfield had a remarkable start to the season, racking up 6.5 tackles for loss in the first four games. And like Brown, he came up small against Florida State, recording no stats of import for a unit that allowed 63 points.
Unlike Brown, however, Whitfield didn't hit a serious lull at any point all season, rebounding from the FSU blowout with 5.0 tackles for loss in his next three games. He finished the season with 14.5 total and 107 tackle-for-loss yards—the latter of which was second in the ACC behind All-American lock Aaron Donald from Pittsburgh.
Whitfield will be counted on to get into the backfield and cause Rakeem Cato some grief. He also led UMD with 9.0 sacks on the season.
Military Bowl President Steve Beck, on Marshall:
"We couldn't be more excited to have the Thundering Herd travel to the National Capital Region," Beck said, according to Jonas Shaffer of The Baltimore Sun. "As evidenced on the field this season, Marshall has a terrific team and we are sure their fans will enjoy our hospitality."
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato, on the C-USA Championship Game:
"Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games," said Cato, according to Chuck Landon of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. "We didn't."
Maryland head coach Randy Edsall, after beating Virginia Tech to become bowl-eligible:
"All credit goes to the players for getting [the season] fixed and playing their hearts out," Edsall said, according to quotes released by the university. "It's a beautiful win for us. All the credit goes to the players. Our coaching staff and everybody involved with the University of Maryland couldn't be happier with what they accomplished today."
Looking at common opponents is not an exact science, but here I think it bears mention.
Marshall played Virginia Tech well in Blacksburg, taking the Hokies to overtime before eventually losing on a sloppy, rain-filled afternoon. Maryland also played Virginia Tech well in Blacksburg and also took the Hokies to overtime, but the Terps actually pulled out the win, 27-24.
It's hard to glean much from that, other than the fact that these teams are fairly equal. But between that slight UMD edge and the pseudo-home-field advantage—Maryland fans will not have to travel far from College Park to Annapolis—I'll take the Terps to win a close one and build some momentum for the Edsall era.
Final Score: Maryland 33, Marshall 27