KICKOFF: Saturday, 3:30 CT
SITE: Robertson Stadium, Houston, Texas
SERIES: Series tied 1-1 (last meeting, 2008, Marshall 37-23)
RECORDS: Marshall 3-4, 2-1 C-USA; Houston 6-0, 2-0 C-USA
POLLS: Houston (No. 21 AP, No. 20 USA Today)
PREDICTION: Houston 52-24
KEYS TO THE GAME:
-- For Marshall: Pressure Houston QB Case Keenum. To show how difficult that can be, however, Keenum has been sacked only seven times in six games. That puts Marshall's bend-don't-break philosophy of pass coverage under the gun.
-- For Houston: Score, score, and score some more. The defense is a crapshoot, so the offense needs to be on point each week and score at least 40 points to ensure the Cougars remain unbeaten. With the way QB Case Keenum has this offense playing, though, that isn't all that difficult.
SCOUTING THE TEAMS:
Marshall coach Doc Holliday refused to announce a starting quarterback at his weekly press conference. True freshman Rakeem Cato started Marshall's first six games, but redshirt sophomore A.J. Graham replaced him for the Herd's 24-20 win over Rice last Saturday. Which quarterback starts against Houston has a huge bearing on the offense because Cato is a pure passer, while Graham is a prolific runner.
Marshall is giving up nearly 157 yards a game on the ground to opponents and 230 through the air. The Thundering Herd has seven interceptions, which is so-so at best, but has record 17 sacks in seven games. DE Vinny Curry has 9.5 of them in his 17.0 tackles for loss.
QB Case Keenum is running the Houston offense arguably as well as any college football player in the nation, and that argument could be extended beyond just this season. Relative to the competition Houston is playing, there simply isn't a better offense in college football. Houston leads the nation in total offense (603.7 yards per game) and passing offense (435.5 passing yards per game) and is No. 4 in scoring offense (47.0 points per game). Considering all that is without having put much of an emphasis on a run game that features three start-worthy running backs in Bryce Beall, Michael Hayes and the best of the bunch, Charles Sims, the Cougars might not have seen their best game yet on offense.
Houston knows the critics are right. Its defense has faltered too often in recent years for anyone to give the Cougars much credit, even when the unit does string together two dominating performances in the past three games -- a 56-0 win over Georgia State on Sept. 24 and a 56-3 win over East Carolina on Oct. 8. The secondary has been opportunistic with nine interceptions to lead C-USA, and the linebackers are well above average in this league with Sammy Brown, Marcus McGraw and Derrick Mathews. But the defensive front still can't stop the run on a consistent basis.
FAST FACTS: Thundering Herd: Marshall leads the nation in tackles for loss (9.57 per game) and is tops in Conference USA with 17 takeaways (10 fumbles, seven interceptions) ... Playing against a ranked Houston team is not a good sign for Marshall. The Herd has lost its last 12 consecutive games against top-25 opponents. Marshall hasn't defeated a ranked team since upsetting No. 6 Kansas State, 27-20, on Sept. 20, 2003. ... Marshall finally erased the onus of being the only FBS program without a rushing touchdown by scoring three last week. The problem is the feast-or-famine Herd offense didn't produce a single passing touchdown while under the guidance of first-time starting QB A.J. Graham. ... RB Tron Martinez, the team's leading rusher with 367 yards, scored one of the rushing touchdowns. QB A.J. Graham got the other two in the win over Rice.
Cougars: Coach Kevin Sumlin is 17-3 in home games for the Cougars. ... Houston leads the West Division in Conference USA and Marshall leads the East. ... How good has Houston's offense been this season compared to the rest of the nation? At 603.7 yards of total offense per game, the Cougars not only lead the nation in total offense, they have more than a 52-yard cushion on the No. 2 offense (Oklahoma State). ... The Cougars could not gain a single yard in their game agaisnt Marshall and still be averaging 517.4 yards per game, which would currently rank them as the No. 9 offense in the country. Should the team fail to gain a single yard in its next two games, the Cougars would still be ranked in the top 27 teams in the country in total offense. ... The Cougars have a league-high nine interceptions this season and have done a lot of their damage against the pass (Houston ranks No. 5 in C-USA against the pass) with as many as three starters out of the lineup due to injury. The bye week should have this unit 100-percent healthy, and considering the next opponent, Marshall, ranks dead last in C-USA in passing (175.4 yards per game), this could be a big week for the Cougars' secondary.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Thundering Herd: DE Vinny Curry -- The senior was the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week after totaling nine tackles, four tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and a forced fumble against Rice. But he knows he has his work cut out for him facing Houston QB Case Keenum.
CB Darryl Roberts -- Ever since the sophomore's helmet got knocked off during a loss to UCF, he has turned feisty and played with a much tougher attitude. He'll need that toughness -- both physically and mentally -- against Houston.
WR Aaron Dobson -- Dobson leads the Herd in receptions with 15 and in receiving yards with 308, He has four touchdown catches.
Cougars: QB Case Keenum -- The sixth-year senior is closing in on the three big all-time NCAA passing records everyone has been waiting for. The first of the three could come as early as this game against Marshall when Keenum, who currently has 16,781 yards of total offense in his career, could pass former Hawaii QB Timmy Chang (16,910 yards) on the NCAA's all-time list for total offense. Keenum needs 129 yards of total offense for that record.
RB Charles Sims -- The sophomore has led the team in rushing in each of the past two games before Houston's bye week and has 195 rushing yards on 21 carries in his last two outings (at UTEP on Sept. 29 and vs. East Carolina on Oct. 8). Prior to that, Sims had just 16 carries for 60 yards on the season.
LB Phillip Steward -- Steward had four tackles and intercepted two passes in Houston's last game, which was Oct. 8 against East Carolina. He has 5.5 tackles-for-loss this season.