Connecticut v. Marshall
Tropicana Field — St. Petersburg, FL
December 26, 2015 — 11:00 am Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
If nothing else, this quirky bowl game that has been shoehorned into a domed ballpark in Florida for the past eight years will provide you with a reason to stay home on Boxing Day. If you’re so inclined, it also provides the perfect excuse to crack that first Boxing Day beer before noon, with an early kickoff beginning another full Saturday of college football. If you do manage to tune in, you’re in store for a game between two of the 20 best scoring defenses in the country, which means you’re probably in for a low-scoring affair. If anything, it will be far closer than one would logically expect in a game between a nine-win team and a six-win opponent.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
UConn has endured a hot-and-cold season throughout 2015, starting the year with two close wins over FCS Villanova and Army before losing five of their next six against Missouri, Navy, BYU, South Florida, and Cincinnati. Then they suddenly found another gear, knocking off East Carolina and Houston at home and Tulane on the road to get to six wins and become bowl-eligible for the first time since playing in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2010 season. The Huskies improved by four wins under second-year head coach Bob Diaco, largely on the strength of a defense that allowed just 350 yards and 20 points per game. Connecticut also ranked 17th nationally in turnover margin and 11th in red zone defense. They need all the help the defense can provide, given that they rank in the bottom dozen nationally in yards gained and points scored on offense.
Marshall Thundering Herd
Marshall was also a Jekyll-and-Hyde team in 2015, opening the year with a big win at home over Purdue and following that up with an improbable road defeat at Ohio. After years of high-flying offenses led by Rakeem Cato, the quarterback’s graduation after the 2014 season forced Doc Holliday to rebuild his team around the defense. Marshall was even better in scoring defense than the 17th-ranked Huskies, finishing 14th at just 18.4 points allowed per game. The Thundering Herd’s secondary was especially solid, boasting the fifth-best passing efficiency defense in the nation. They were also far more competent on offense than UConn, scoring over 32 points per game — hardly the otherworldly territory of the past few seasons, but still plenty enough to have a shot at a third consecutive 10-win season. Deandre Reaves, the senior receiver and returner, could be instrumental in flipping field position after averaging over 30 yards per kick return in the regular season.
What is Likely to Happen
Marshall is pegged as a four-point favorite in Vegas, and the spread isn’t larger mainly because of the way UConn came on late in the season to stifle teams like Houston and East Carolina. After all, only two of the Huskies’ opponents this year scored 30 or more points against them. Ultimately, though, Diaco’s offense will betray Connecticut. Marshall brings just as good a defense to St. Petersburg, so it is likely to be a low-scoring affair, but the Thundering Herd have enough talent on their roster to crack the Huskies on the second Saturday of the bowl season. Reaves will have at least one long kickoff return, the backfield stable should be able to find some rushing yardage, and Chase Litton will make one or two plays that change the complexion of the game. Unless Marshall can’t remain cool-headed after finishing the year as one of the most penalized teams in FBS, there is no reason to think that they won’t eventually pull away with this thriller on the funky Tropicana Field turf.
Marshall 28, Connecticut 16
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