Evaluating expectations is a really good starting point when it comes to bowl games. The Marshall Thundering Herd won 33 games from 2013-15 and appeared in a bowl game in each of those three seasons. Last season, Doc Holliday’s team went 3-9. Now, Marshall is back in a postseason spot with a long trip to Albuquerque to take on the Colorado State Rams in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Colorado State is a 5.5-point favorite in a quintessential offense vs. defense bowl game pairing.
A lot of programs look for scapegoats after a bad season. Marshall held the majority of its coaching staff together, including Holliday’s coordinators Bill Legg and Chuck Heater. Credit to the athletic department for having some patience after injuries and misfortune took Marshall from a perennial C-USA contender to a bottom feeder. Marshall’s 7-5 record wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was a big step forward and those that hopped on early enjoyed the spoils of an 8-4 ATS record. Colorado State, on the other hand, has to be disappointed with a 7-5 regular season mark. Bettors were disappointed with the 4-8 ATS record. The Rams were supposed to be a lot better than they were and some had them pegged as the Mountain Division champions. They weren’t, but they have a chance to salvage something here.
One big angle to consider for this game is the location of the bowl game. Albuquerque is a place where the Rams play every other season and a place at over 5,000 feet of elevation. While Colorado State won’t get any notable home field advantage from the crowd, the conditions certainly benefit the favorite in this spot. Marshall did not play at UTEP in conference play this season and has not played at UTEP in recent years.
If Marshall wins, it will be on the strength of its defense. Nothing against Chase Litton and the Marshall offense, but this is a slightly below average group with 5.3 yards per play. For the most part, Litton was solid, with a 23/12 TD/INT ratio and a 60.6 percent completion percentage, but the days of Rakeem Cato are in the very distant past. Tyre Brady spent some time battling injuries during the season, but still led the team with 56 grabs for 777 yards. Overall, Marshall averaged just 11.5 yards per reception and had just 3.8 yards per carry. Tyler King took reps from Keion Davis throughout season and the freshman ball carrier had 4.7 yards per pop to Davis’s 4.2. He only had a long of 30 yards, so Marshall really was lacking in the explosive plays department. Three years ago, Marshall had 7.6 yards per play. This year’s upgrade was nominal, but the defense played a lot better and that made the offensive gains look better as well.
This defense really stepped up. Last year, Marshall was ravaged by injuries. Going the JUCO route, the Herd picked up a bit of talent and defensive coordinator Chuck Heater made the necessary adjustments. Marshall went from 35.3 points per game and 6.4 yards per play back down to 19.2 points per game and 5.0 yards per play. Marshall didn’t have a whole lot of big plays and takeaways, but the base defense was able to shut down a pretty talented cast of Conference USA offenses. Marshall didn’t even have the luxury of playing Rice or UTEP. Marshall even held Florida Atlantic to 30 points, which, at this stage of the game, seems impossible with how the Lane Kiffin/Kendal Briles offense is faring in Boca Raton. This will be a really big test for the Marshall defense, especially in the altitude. Marshall and Colorado State both won games by controlling the clock and the tempo. That will be harder here against a more efficient offense.
If the Colorado State defense had held up its end of the bargain, the year would take on a different tone for the Rams. Colorado State racked up 6.7 yards per play, which put the Rams among the top 20 offenses in college football. With 5.2 yards per carry and 13.4 yards per reception, this offense moved the ball in chunks. Dalyn Dawkins had 6.2 yards per carry and cracked the 1,000-yard mark with ease. Michael Gallup will see regular work on Sundays at the next level. He needs six catches to have 100 grabs for the season and already has 1,345 yards receiving. Will Nick Stevens find work in the NFL? Scouts have to like the size and tenacity at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds. He posted a 27/10 TD/INT ratio with a 63.6 percent completion rate. Last season was tough for Stevens, as he was benched early in the year for some unproven youngsters and a Georgia transfer. He wound up starting the rest of the way and Colorado State scored 46, 49, 63, and 50 over the last four games. The offense had issues turning yards into points this season. Colorado State had 501 yards per game, but only scored 12.8 points per game after half and 33.8 per game for the season. When teams adjusted, Mike Bobo and offensive coordinator Will Friend didn’t have answers.
The defense didn’t have a lot of answers either. The Rams defense allowed 6.2 yards per play this season. That was up from last year’s 6.1 yards per play. It certainly seemed like things couldn’t get any worse for Colorado State after allowing 172 points over the last four games this season, but not much changed. The Rams still gave up five yards per carry and had too many blown assignments in pass coverage. Marty English’s defense only allowed 27.5 points per game, which was better than last season, but a big reason why is because the defense played less than 28 minutes per game. The offense saved the defense from being even worse. Colorado State is very fortunate to get a pedestrian offense in this Conference USA opponent because a different draw could have been a big problem.
College Football Free Pick: Colorado State Rams -5.5
The altitude angle, and Colorado State’s familiarity with Albuquerque, cannot be overlooked here. With finals and other things going on, it’s not like Marshall will be able to train in the altitude to get ready for this game. Colorado State is used to it in Fort Collins. Marshall’s defense has been good and has faced some good offenses, but Colorado State has plenty of time to look for weaknesses and exploit them.