Marshall’s first appearance in the Camellia Bowl will be unlike any other experience of its extensive bowl past.
The only similarity is that the word “bowl” is attached at the end. No shopping sprees. No friendly competitions on the bowling alley. No luncheons with big-time speakers.
Once again, Covid-19 has insinuated itself into the sports world, relegating bowl games to little more than just one last game on the schedule.
“There’s no question, it’s different. You’re going to a bowl game for the first time where the kids can’t leave the hotel,” said Marshall coach Doc Holliday, whose team will play Buffalo in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., on Christmas Day (2:30 p.m., ESPN). “There are just so many different things with things that have happened and you wish you could control. There’s nothing we can control other than working really hard to prepare our football team to play this game.
“At the end of the day, I guess the one positive would be, from a coach’s standpoint, we’ve got them locked in. They’re not going to Busch Gardens and they’re not going to the beach and running all over the place. During this bowl trip, we’re at the hotel. We’re not up there nearly as long. The preparation part should be a lot easier because you don’t have the distractions.”
The Thundering Herd (7-2) arrived in Alabama on Wednesday, ready to do what they have done all year — isolate and prepare for the next opponent. During a time when several teams opted not to play, Holliday, for one, is thankful for the opportunity. So, too, are his players.
“I think what’s special is you have a group of young guys that have been here seven months and worked their tail off to get to this point and want to play,” Holliday said. “I think there’s a lot of teams out there that chose not to play. I don’t mean to sit here and be critical of any of those teams. With what everybody has had to go through, everybody has to make their own decisions.
“That being said, I think it’s a tribute to our players that they want to go play and tells you what kind of kids we have. And Buffalo’s the same way. Give Buffalo’s coaches and team a lot of credit. They want to play this game.”
Friday’s matchup pits Marshall’s nationally-ranked defense against Buffalo’s equally potent running attack.
The Bulls (5-1) lead the FBS with 309.5 rush yards per game. The main reason for that is Mid-American Conference Offensive Player of the Year Jaret Patterson, the nation’s rushing leader at 178.7 yards per game.
That number actually went down from 203 after he was held to 47 yards in last Friday’s 38-28 loss to Ball State in the MAC championship game. He suffered a knee injury in that game but coach Lance Leipold — the MAC Coach of the Year — says Patterson will be able to play against the Herd.
Patterson is 116 yards short of 4,000 for his career. He set the school record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 19 last year — and sits at that number ahead of the bowl game.
Kevin Marks also provides the Bulls with a solid running threat. He is averaging 100.5 yards and has scored six touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Marshall’s defense has excelled against the run — at least through the first seven games. The Herd leads the nation in scoring defense at 12.6 points allowed per game, is second against the run (88.9 yards per game) and third in total defense (277.7).
The Herd allowed teams to rush for 100 yards just twice — and lost both games. Rice ran for 127 in a 20-0 win over Marshall to close the regular season, and UAB went for 216 in last Friday’s 22-13 win in the Conference USA championship. More than half — 131 — came in the first half.
“No. 1, I’ve got tremendous coaches. I’ve got good players. We have good players on that side of the ball,” Holliday said when asked what has been the key to the defense’s overall body of work. “They’ve done a great job of coaching those guys up, so we’ve had some success there. Any program starts with the work you try to play good defense. To this point we’ve been able to do that. It will be a great challenge for us against a great Buffalo offense.”
The Herd will be trying to erase two trends. First, Marshall suffered its first bowl loss in seven games under Holliday last season, falling 48-25 to UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl.
Second, the offense has been stagnant in the back-to-back losses. Marshall went seven consecutive quarters without scoring, with freshman quarterback Grant Wells struggling for the first time.
Wells, the C-USA Freshman of the Year, leads the conference with 1,877 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, 16 of those touchdowns came in the first seven games, when the Herd went to 7-0 and rose to No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25.
He only threw four interceptions through those first seven games, but had five against Rice. He threw for 303 yards combined in the two losses.
Wells failed to complete any of his 10 pass attempts in the first half against UAB, but he did rebound in the second half to go 8-of-13 for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“Any time you’re playing with a freshman quarterback, you’re going to go through some growing pains,” Holliday said. “He was smooth sailing there for seven weeks. He had no growing pains, basically, for seven straight weeks, and he’s had a couple the last couple of weeks. That’s part of growing up and being a quarterback. There’s nobody that wants to go be a great player more than he does and prepares more than he does.”
To be fair, the offense was not afforded a lot of opportunity in the two losses. Marshall held the ball for just 42:08 of the combined 120 minutes, including 18:34 against UAB.
The offense will be without running back Brenden Knox, who was one of three Herd players to announce this week that he is opting out of the bowl game to concentrate on preparing for the NFL Draft. Know, the 2019 C-USA Most Valuable Player, was a first-team selection this season after rushing for 887 yards and nine touchdowns.
That makes Sheldon Evans the starter. Evans, who was named one of four Marshall captains for the game, has run for 248 yards and four touchdowns.
Also missing the game are offensive lineman Josh Ball and linebacker Tavante Beckett. Ball was also a conference first-teamer, and Beckett was named the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year.
Junior defensive lineman Abraham Beauplan was named a game captain as well.
The decisions were predictably unpopular with fans, but Holliday pledged his support.
“Any of those guys that think that’s the direction they want to go in, I know I’m behind them 100 percent. I know our players are, and everybody has to make decisions they think are best for them,” said Holliday, the C-USA Coach of the Year. “That’s happening all over the country right now, whether it’s the portal or whether it’s the opting out to go train for the NFL. That’s something that I guess we’re going to have to get used to. It’s everywhere now. I’m not sure if it’s good, bad or indifferent, but I do know as a fan base and as a coaching staff we need to support these kids 100 percent in whatever that decision is because they sure gave us everything they had when they were here playing for us.”
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