By Chuck McGill
TAMPA, Fla. – The time has come to batten down the hatches.
Gameday is here for the 2018 Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, Tampa's perfectly pirate-themed matchup on the Buccaneers' home field. This is the first meeting between Marshall (8-4) and South Florida (7-5), but that is about all that is new. This is neither the Thundering Herd's nor the Bulls' first appearance in this bowl, although the game has changed names, sponsors and venues.
The coaches are no strangers, either. Marshall's Doc Holliday and USF's Charlie Strong have worked together and won championships together. A Strong assistant, Sean Cronin, had three stints as a Marshall coach, including under Holliday. There are players on each side who have shared locker rooms as high school teammates. There are players on each side who have shared bedrooms as siblings growing up.
This is a game that features rosters with a combined 122 student-athletes from the Sunshine State. This is a game that features bowl streaks: Marshall has won six consecutive bowl games; USF is going for its third in a row.
One of those winning traditions will continue tonight on ESPN. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. All football-hungry eyes will be on Raymond James Stadium – the fine folks in Tampa simply refer to it as "RayJay" – the site of tonight's matchup, and there is nary another game to distract viewers. There is no Thursday NFL game this week. This is the only bowl game set for this date.
That's why Marshall senior linebacker Chase Hancock called the matchup "a great opportunity" for Marshall.
"This is it," he said. "This is the last time I will suit up as a linebacker for Marshall. I'm ready to take care of business."
As kickoff awaits, here is what else one might need to know before the swords are drawn.
Marshall has boasted one of the nation's top defenses in 2018. Entering Thursday's game, the Herd ranks in the top 25 in total defense and rush defense.
At one point this season, Marshall had the nation's longest streak of consecutive games without a first quarter touchdown allowed. Until the last scheduled game of the regular season, at FIU, the Herd was the last team to have not allowed 150-plus team rushing yards to an opponent this season. Marshall remains one of four schools that has yet to allow an individual 100-yard rusher this season.
Marshall has 39 defensive sacks, which is tied for No. 10 nationally, while USF has allowed 39 sacks, which ranks No. 107.
Will those trends continue tonight? Well, it's hard to say – because of the unknown. Sterlin Gilbert left Strong's staff this month to become the head coach at McNeese State, and Strong has handed play-calling duties to tight ends and special teams coach Justin Burke on an interim basis. Burke told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday that there will be "wrinkles" in the offensive gameplan for the bowl game, which is what Marshall defensive coordinator Adam Fuller expects.
"I don't know what to make of it," Fuller said. "I know this: There's some off time in between the end of the season and the bowl game, so there's some self-evaluation. We'll have things. We'll probably all do things that we do really well a lot, and try to not to do the things we didn't do really well, regardless of the side of the ball. Their offensive staff, they've all had voices throughout the year, and now there will be a little bit different lead voice, but I'm sure it will be a combination of the staff. We'll study it. We'll make sure we have some things ready if things change. We've done some extensive research on all of the guys, so our job is to prepare the guys."
The NCAA Postseason Football Licensing Subcommittee approved a new bowl game on April 30, 2008, the first of which would be played at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Tropicana Field is the home of Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.
The 2018 Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl is the 11th game since the game was approved, although the game has switched sponsors, venues and cities. Now, the game is played in Tampa, Florida, at Raymond James Stadium, the NFL home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This year's game is the first at the new venue, and the second under the sponsorship of Bad Boy Mowers.
The game's previous sponsors have been magicJack (2008), Beef O'Brady's (2009-13) and BitPay (2014). Marshall won the 2011 Beef O'Brady's Bowl against FIU, 20-10, and returned to defeat UConn, 16-10, in the St. Petersburg Bowl in 2015.
This is the seventh time in 11 bowl games that a Florida school has participated in the bowl. Marshall is the only multi-time winner of the bowl. The other champions have been USF (2008), Rutgers (2009), Louisville (2010), UCF (2012), East Carolina (2013), NC State (2014), Mississippi State (2016) and Temple (2017).
A piece of trivia: Three of the 10 MVPs of the bowl game have been receivers, two of which came from Marshall (Aaron Dobson in 2011 and Deandre Reaves in 2015). The other MVPs include five quarterbacks and two running backs.
STREAKS ON THE LINE
Marshall enters Thursday's bowl game having won 17 consecutive games when scoring first. Fast starts bode well for the Herd, as it is 6-0 this season when leading after the first quarter.
Turnovers will continue to be critical to Marshall's success. This season, the Herd is 8-0 when its turnover margin is, at worst, minus-one. Marshall has had a turnover margin of minus-two four times this season, and is 0-4 in those games.
The MU defense is one of four programs that has not allowed a 100-yard individual rusher this season. The others: Clemson, Northern Illinois and Southern Miss. Overall, Marshall is fourth on the list of consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Clemson's streak is 19 games, and dates back to Oct. 28, 2017. Northern Illinois extended its streak to 15 games in Tuesday's Boca Raton Bowl, and Southern Miss has a streak of 14 games. The Herd's streak is 13 games, dating back to Nov. 25, 2017.
Senior receiver Tyre Brady has a catch in 23 consecutive games. His quarterback, freshman Isaiah Green, has a touchdown pass in nine consecutive appearances (eight starts). Green missed three regular season games in October, but has since resumed the role of starting QB.
Chuck McGill is the Assistant Athletic Director for Fan/Donor Engagement and Communications at Marshall University and a six-time winner of the National Sports Media Association West Virginia Sportswriter of the Year award. In addition to HerdZone.com's Word on the Herd, McGill is the editor of Thundering Herd Illustrated, Marshall's official athletics publication. Follow him on Twitter (@chuckmcgill) and Instagram (wordontheherd).