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As USF’s plummet continued, so did Marshall’s ascent

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The Gasparilla Bowl showed that who you are in October and November is often who you are in December.

NCAA Football: Gasparilla Bowl-Marshall vs South Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes the bowl break is just a figment of our imagination.

We tend to envision bowls as singular entities, as crapshoots. You haven’t played for three weeks (or more). You’ve been focused on recruiting. Some assistant coaches have changed jobs. Maybe your head coach has changed jobs. And now you’re playing a game in a half-empty stadium against a team dealing with just as much change and distraction as you.

Whatever numbers you produced in the regular season don’t really apply — bowls are simply about who shows up, right?

Anecdotally, sure. But bowls can also sometimes be a pretty seamless continuation of the regular season. The Gasparilla Bowl certainly was.

When we last left Marshall and USF in the regular season, they were trending in opposite directions.

  • After a 10-point loss at MTSU left the Thundering Herd at 3-2 and 74th in S&P+, they rallied. They won five of their last six conference games. They beat FAU by 24 and won at FIU. The MTSU loss cost them the Conference USA East title, but they were still up to 49th when the regular season ended. They had risen to 40th before a setback against Virginia Tech.
  • They had basically traded places with USF, in other words. The Bulls began the season 7-0 but clearly weren’t up to the standard of a typical unbeaten team. They were 40th in S&P+ when their winning streak was broken in a blowout loss at Houston, and the slippage quickly picked up steam. Following a 38-10 home defeat at the hands of UCF, they were 7-5 and 72nd.

The bowl break did nothing to cut off those trends.

On Thursday night in Tampa, in front of a weathered crowd of 14,135, Marshall was mostly dominant. The Herd bolted to a 28-7 first-half lead, survived the slightest of rallies, then easily put away a 38-20 win late. They out-gained USF by 143 yards (1.7 per play) and held a multi-score lead for 50 of 60 minutes.

It was a perfect bowl performance for Marshall, really, combining lovely performances by outgoing seniors with promising thunderbolts from youngsters. Senior receiver Tyre Brady, a Miami transfer and easily the star of the offense, caught five passes for 88 yards, and senior RBs Keion Davis and Anthony Anderson combined for 23 carries, 137 yards, and three scores. Senior linebackers Frankie Hernandez and Chase Hancock led the defense with nine combined solo tackles and six assists.

Meanwhile, redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Green (17-for-25 for 221 yards, plus 35 rushing yards) had one of his steadiest performances, redshirt freshman back Brenden Knox rushed 12 times for 93 yards, and sophomore tight end Xavier Gaines caught three balls for 51 yards. Defensively, redshirt freshman Darius Hodge defined the game by making a sack one one first-quarter play, then nearly returning a fumble for a score on the next. Juniors Channing Hames and Ty Tyler had three sacks as well.

NCAA Football: Gasparilla Bowl-Marshall vs South Florida
Channing Hames (94)
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Doc Holliday is good at attracting players with raw athleticism, and when Marshall looks good, Marshall looks dominant.

Six of this year’s nine games came by at least 16 points, and even with Brady and a few others gone, you have to like the Herd’s chances of winning a few more blowouts next year, especially with what returns on a defense that allowed just 4.8 yards per play in 2018, 4.5 against competition outside the Power Five.

Marshall’s 2016 collapse looks further and further in the rearview.

After going 33-8 from 2013-15, the Herd slipped all the way to 3-9, but they rebounded to eight wins last fall and nine this year. And they’ll head into 2019 as one of the C-USA’s top-rated teams.

For USF, the identity crisis should continue into the offseason.

The offense was young enough to rebound (if the loss of coordinator Sterlin Gilbert doesn’t hurt, though USF fans tend to believe his exit will be a boon), but a defense that really only looked good once or twice over the last half of the year must now replace five of its top nine tacklers, including its best two front-seven play-makers in linebackers Khalid McGee and Josh Black and corners Ronnie Hoggins and Mazzi Wilkins.

There are young play-makers on both sides of the ball — receiver Randall St. Felix (six catches, 165 yards on Thursday), running back Johnny Ford, defensive backs Mike Hampton and Nick Roberts — but the whole was far less than the sum of the parts over the last half of 2018, and the bowl game was no magic elixir. Head coach Charlie Strong is putting together another solid recruiting class, but he’s got a lot more questions to answer after his second year than he did after his first.