Although a College Football Playoff berth is out of reach, Marshall still has a chance to advance to a major bowl if it can remain unbeaten.
The 19th-ranked Thundering Herd, who finally cracked the CFP’s Top 25 this week, will try to complete a perfect regular season by topping Western Kentucky on Friday.
While it’s one of two unbeaten FBS teams in the CFP rankings along with No. 3 Florida State, Marshall (11-0, 7-0 Conference USA) did not enter this poll until its fifth edition. Its No. 24 spot is far away from the four playoff positions but just one spot behind Boise State.
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That’s important because the top-ranked champion from the non-"Power Five" leagues is guaranteed a spot in the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange or Peach bowls. Should Boise State lose to Utah State on Saturday night, Marshall would likely still have competition for that spot from another Mountain West Conference team, Colorado State, which plays at Air Force on Friday.
Staying in contention is contingent, of course, on the Thundering Herd defeating the Hilltoppers (6-5, 3-4) and winning the C-USA championship game Dec. 6 against the winner of Saturday’s Rice-Louisiana Tech game.
Marshall finished 13-0 in 1999 and went to the Motor City Bowl, where it beat BYU.
The Thundering Herd had the stiffest challenge to their perfect record with Saturday’s 23-18 win at UAB. After winning its prior 10 games by an average of 30.8 points, Marshall needed Ra’Shawde Myers’ fumble recovery in the end zone with 7:35 remaining, then a fourth-down stop at its 10-yard line in the final minute to get past the Blazers.
"If winning was easy, there would be a lot more people in this position than us and Florida State. At some point, you have to grind them out," coach Doc Holliday said. "We had to grind one out Saturday and that’s a tribute to all of these guys."
Marshall’s offense was shut out in the second half, and Rakeem Cato was sacked three times, the most allowed by the Herd since the season opener against Miami of Ohio. Cato, though, still extended his FBS-record streak of 43 games with at least one touchdown pass.
Devon Johnson, meanwhile, moved on the verge of tying a school mark with his 171 rushing yards.
Johnson, who has 642 of his 1,573 yards in the past three contests, is one shy of matching Chris Parker’s mark 10 games of 100 or more yards. Parker accomplished that feat three times from 1993-95 while Marshall was in what was formerly known as Division I-AA.
Western Kentucky comes into this game with a defense that ranks 114th out of 125 FBS teams with 483.1 yards allowed per game. The Hilltoppers’ averages of 224.1 rushing yards and 36.8 points allowed are also near the bottom.
They’ve earned their six wins on the strength of an offense that’s only slightly less productive than Marshall’s. Western Kentucky’s 41.9 points and 505.9 total yards per game are each in the top 12 in FBS, but behind the Herd’s averages of 44.9 and 562.5.
While he doesn’t have Cato’s dual-threat capabilities, Brandon Doughty has been a more prolific passer. Having shattered his own school record with 3,853 yards, the senior can pass Washington State’s injured FBS leader Connor Halliday with just 21 more.
Doughty leads the FBS with 36 touchdowns and had five in a 45-7 rout of Texas-San Antonio on Saturday, the Hilltoppers’ third consecutive win. He has thrown for 858 yards and 11 TDs without an interception during the winning streak and hasn’t been picked off in 104 passes.
Marshall has won all four previous meetings with Western Kentucky, including a 37-3 rout at home in the most recent one Sept. 28, 1996.