FAU (3-4) at (23) Marshall (7-0) (ET)
GAME NOTES: The Marshall Thundering Herd moved up two spots in the AP Top-25 Poll to No. 23 in the nation, and will try to remain perfect this weekend as they play host to the FAU Owls in a Conference USA clash at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
FAU has won two of its last three games, including a 45-38 edging of Western Kentucky last weekend in Boca Raton. The Owls are 3-4 on the season, and haven't had back-to-back wins all year long. This will be the third time this season the Owls have taken on a nationally ranked opponent.
Marshall trailed for the first time all season last weekend, when FIU quarterback Alex McGough kept the ball and carried it into the end zone for a 7-0 Panthers lead. That didn't phase the Herd much, who came back to defeat FIU in the contest, 45-13. The team has scored at least 42 points in all seven games this season.
These two programs have only met once before on the field, which occurred last season. The Thundering Herd walked away with a 24-23 escape victory in mid- October.
FAU made a nice comeback effort against Western Kentucky last weekend when the Owls trailed the Hilltoppers, 31-14, at the half. FAU limited WKU to just one second-half touchdown while the Owls scored five times - four touchdowns and one field goal. Quarterback Jaquez Johnson was sensational for the Owls by completing 23-of-34 passing for 325 yards and three touchdowns. He added 95 yards and two touchdowns on the ground for a total of five scores in the win.
The Owls are averaging 24.6 ppg through their first seven contests, largely thanks to the efforts of Johnson under center. The quarterback has passed for 1,323 yards and 10 touchdowns against just one interception, and has rushed in a team-high five touchdowns on the ground. Johnson has found top wideout Lucky Whitehead44 times this season for a team-best 436 yards and four touchdowns, which includes Whitehead's 125-yard, two-touchdown effort against WKU.
Take away Johnson from the running game, and the Owls have had some trouble. Jay Warren leads the team with 83 carries for 435 yards, but the starting running back has scored just one touchdown. In fact, Johnson is the only player for FAU that has scored multiple touchdowns on the ground. The team is rushing for 153.9 ypg, and has scored eight times all season via the ground attack.
There has been a struggle defensively for the Owls this season, as the team currently gives up 35.7 ppg and 465.7 offensive ypg to opponents. In five of the team's seven games played, the Owls have surrendered at least 37 points to their challengers. That certainly doesn't look good going up against one of the nation's best and most potent offenses, especially on its home turf.
FAU has allowed teams to score 20 times on the ground this season, so stopping the Marshall run game will be the key (but don't forget to stop Rakeem Cato). Damian Parms (58 tackles) will be extremely busy trying to slow Cato, the Herd's dominant quarterback, while Andrae Kirk (52 tackles, four tackles for loss) will likely focus on the run game. The Owls will need to put constant pressure on the Marshall backfield if they want to be at all successful in this game.
Marshall started slowly against FIU, trailing for the first time all season and then going into the half with only a 14-7 lead. But the Thundering Herd turned it up in the second half, and Cato became a national record holder in the process. With a first-quarter touchdown pass, Cato broke the all-time NCAA record for most consecutive career games with a touchdown completion. The senior has completed one touchdown toss in 39 consecutive games, passing Russell Wilson's old mark of 38 from 2009-11.
Later in the game, Cato moved passed Chad Pennington for first place in Marshall history with 120 career touchdowns responsible for, breaking Pennington's record of 119. Cato now has 19 touchdown passes this season and 1,912 passing yards for an offense that averages 47.4 ppg (second in the FBS behind Baylor) and 574.9 offensive ypg (also second in the nation behind Baylor).
"The coaches don't need to say a whole lot at this point. (The team) understands they want to be a great football team, understand what's at stake," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said following the win against FIU. "The bottom line is seeing how your team responds to be able to overcome the adversity. There was no panic. I thought our kids came out, worked in the second half, and played like they have been playing."
It's not just Marshall's passing game that is damaging. The run game averages 284.7 ypg, and has scored 23 touchdowns through seven games led by Devon Johnson's 11 touchdowns and 931 rushing yards. Cato contributes to the cause too, having scored five rushing touchdowns himself.
Don't forget the team's stifling defense. Johnson and the Owls will find it extremely hard to reach the end zone considering the Herd are holding opponents to a 16.6 ppg clip. Only twice this season has Marshall surrendered more than 17 points to an opponent, and only 15 offensive touchdowns have been scored on the Herd in those seven games.
Linebacker Neville Hewitt leads the team with 44 tackles on the season, adding in a team-best seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. A.J. Leggett has three interceptions, while Taj Letman has recorded two. They'll be looking to force Johnson, who has only one thrown interception this season, into making more mistakes. Hewitt and D.J. Hunter (5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) will try to collapse the pocket against Johnson to get him on the move. And to not let the Owls have much hope in the first half, like FIU did last weekend.
"Games like (that) - it was tough at first - that brings us together and it definitely will help us down the road," Hewitt said after the FIU game. "We haven't had a game this close all season (in the first half), really, and so this is going to help us honestly see where we are as a team."
Being able to play on the road and overcome a first half unlike the Herd have seen all season, and still to wrap up a one-sided win doesn't bode well for the Owls this weekend, who must travel to West Virginia to challenge Marshall at home. If the Thundering Herd can shut FAU's Johnson down, it won't be much of a contest. Cato will continue to pile up the records as he searches to become the leading yardage passer in Marshall history.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Marshall 43, FAU 18