WKU vs Marshall: Division title on the line in Huntington

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Marshall C. Canupp

Hilltoppers’ freshman wide receiver Malachi Corley runs through the FAU Owls’ defense during their matchup on Nov. 20, 2021 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

The WKU football program (7-4, 6-1 C-USA) travels to Huntington, West Virginia to play a winner-take-all game against the Marshall Thundering Herd (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) Saturday afternoon for the Conference USA East Division title.

Here’s what you need to know. 

The unstoppable force meets the immovable object 

WKU enters Saturday’s matchup with the top passing offense in the nation – it’s not even close. Second place is 40 yards per game behind the Hilltoppers. They’ll be going against the 15th-best pass defense in the nation and the best in C-USA. 

What pops out about the Thundering Herd’s secondary is how it’s been able to hold opposing quarterbacks to just a 54% completion percentage, seventh-best in the nation. The secondary isn’t the only unit that contributes to the pass defense – the pass rushers have been wreaking havoc all year with 37 sacks, tied for fifth-best in the nation.

WKU’s front five has given great protection for Bailey Zappe all year long, giving up just 12 sacks in 11 games. WKU is the only team in the top 10 of pass attempts with less than 20 sacks on the season. 

Marshall has allowed just three games of 200 or more passing yards this season, one in its last seven games. Zappe has thrown for less than 350 yards in a game just once this season.

Zappe has thrown nine interceptions this season and had his second multi-interception performance of 2021 last Saturday against FAU. The Thundering Herd secondary has forced an interception in seven games this year. Zappe will need to make sure his decision making is on point to prevent the Herd secondary from feasting.

Whoever wins the passing game – pass defense matchup has the advantage in this game. The Hilltoppers have the second-fewest rush attempts in the nation this year. If you take away WKU’s historic air raid attack, the offense may run into issues if it needs to utilize its ground game.

What’s at stake 

The winner of Saturday’s game wins the C-USA East Division and will play No. 15 UTSA on Dec. 4 for the conference title. Marshall is trying to make its second appearance in three seasons while WKU is searching for its first appearance in a C-USA title game since 2016. 

The Thundering Herd roll into the weekend with a four-game win streak over the Hilltoppers. Three of those games came down to one score and Marshall won last year’s matchup 38-14. The Hilltoppers were able to end a four-game drought against FAU last Saturday, proving they have what it takes to break losing streaks. 

This is also a chance for WKU to show that the teams that left C-USA weren’t the right ones. Both Marshall and UTSA are leaving C-USA in 2023 for the Sun Belt and American Athletic Conference respectively. 

Whatever happens, Saturday will be a game to remember. Kickoff in Huntington is set for 2:30 p.m. CT.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.