UCF’s game against the University of Miami was critically important for the Knights for in-state bragging rights and the chance to impress the largest crowd ever at Bright House Networks Stadium.
And next week’s showdown against No. 3-ranked Texas is sure to take on great importance for UCF because of the magnitude of playing one of the nation’s premier programs and a legitimate national championship contender.
But when it comes to sheer overall impact on the direction of the rest of the season, no game on UCF’s schedule holds more importance than the Sunday night showdown against Marshall.
Win this game and UCF (4-3 overall and 2-2 in Conference USA play) is back in the conversation to compete for a C-USA East Division title. Marshall (5-3 overall and 3-1 in C-USA play) is hoping to keep pace with East Carolina (4-1 in C-USA) and is also in a must-win mindframe.
And if UCF beats the Thundering Herd at Bright House Networks Stadium the Knights’ final three C-USA games against nationally-ranked Houston, Tulane and UAB take on added importance.
Sprinkle in the fact that the Marshall showdown will be televised by ESPN and will be the night’s only college football game and it’s easy to see why UCF is treating this game as if it’s the most important one of the season.
“Conference USA is still really wide open and we’ve just been harping around here that if we’ll do our thing in this game that good things will happen,” UCF linebacker Cory Hogue said. “If we don’t lose sight of what’s at hand we just think things will work themselves out.”
The winner of this game will likely be decided by which thrives the most: The unmovable object (UCF’s run defense) vs. the unstoppable force (Herd tailback Darius Marshall).
Marshall, a junior, ranks second in the nation in rushing at 136 yards per game. He’s run for 10 touchdowns and boasts and impressive 5.67-yard per carry average. He ran for 133 yards and his fifth 100-yard game of the season in last Saturday’s 27-7 defeat of UAB.
UCF’s stout run defense should present Marshall his stiffest test of the season. The Knights’ run defense ranks 11th in the country while allowing just 92.2 yards a game on the ground.
Darius Marshall had some success against UCF last season in Huntington, W.Va., running for 142 yards on 16 carries. He ripped off a 61-yard gainer, but he failed to find the end zone against the Knights. A sixth 100-yard rushing day should be especially difficult for Marshall, especially considering how well the Knights are playing defensively these days.
“When you hear about a back being second in the nation in rushing and you see on film how strong and fast that he is, you take that as a real challenge as a defense,” said Hogue, UCF’s second-leading tackler this season with 54 total stops and 8.5 tackles for loss. “Our run defense has been solid all season and our pass coverage has gotten better week by week. And the pressure that we’re getting has been really good. We’ll be ready as a defense for this game.”
Fresh off last week’s resounding 49-7 defeat of Rice, head coach George O’Leary knows his team will have to play some of its best football to beat Marshall. To hear O’Leary break down the Thundering Herd it’s as if Marshall has some of the best personnel that the Knights will see all season.
“They have some very good football players over there,” O’Leary said. “They have given up the least amount of points in the conference, so that shows that they are very stingy around the goal line. They have good playmakers on offense and defense.”
O’Leary is hoping that his football team delivers its finest effort on what might be the grandest stage all season. Deliver against Marshall and the games only get bigger from here on out.
“It’s nice to get a game on Sunday because we are the only football game in town,” O’Leary said. “Anytime we get on national television with exposure it is great for the program and very important from a fan standpoint and a student body standpoint. It is very important to pack the stadium because that is what people notice the most.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears several times a week on UCFathletics.com. E-mail John at [email protected]