Saturday’s Charlotte-Marshall football game at the Thundering Herd’s Edwards Stadium in Huntington, W.Va., will match the top two rushing defenses in Conference USA.
It will also feature two of the league’s best running backs in the 49ers’ Benny LeMay and Marshall’s Tyler King.
So it will be a strength vs. strength affair between the 49ers (4-5, 3-2 C-USA) and Herd (5-3, 3-2), both which still have shots at the league’s East Division title.
“There is no doubt that we are very similar teams at this point,” said Marshall coach Doc Holliday at his weekly news conference. “It’s going to be a battle of defense.”
The 49ers have been stout on rushing defense all season, limiting opponents to 82.0 yards. That ranks No. 1 in the league and sixth nationally. It began with holding Fordham to minus-9 yards in the season opener through Tennessee’s 20 yards last week and mostly everywhere in between. The 49ers haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown in their past three games.
“Something (defensive coordinator Glenn) Spencer tells us is: Don’t drink the poison,” said 49ers junior linebacker Jeff Gemmell, who has 6.5 tackles for loss this season. “What that means is you’ve got people saying, ‘Oh, you guys did this against Tennessee’s offensive line.’ But we’ve got some great offensive lines in Conference USA, as well. We just have to keep on doing what we know how to do and not get too overconfident and just know we still have a lot of work to do.”
The Herd has been nearly as good stopping the run, averaging 103.5 yards in rushing defense (second behind the 49ers in the league and 13th nationally). Marshall hasn’t allowed a run of more than 30 yards this season.
LeMay, who averages 91.8 yards per game and has 826 total, has four runs of 30-plus yards, including a 58-yarder against Fordham and a 57-yarder against Middle Tennessee.
“He is a very physical player,” Holliday said of LeMay. “He is similar to (FAU’s Devin) Singletary (C-USA’s leading rusher). He’s hard to tackle with just one guy. He makes the first guy miss, so you have to rally to the ball, as we did with Singletary. It will be the same type of challenge we had there, but he (LeMay) is a little bigger and more physical.”
In King, a sophomore, the Herd has the league’s No. 4 rusher, averaging 81.9 yards per game. He was spectacular in a 42-20 victory against Old Dominion in October, rushing for 195 yards and scoring on runs of 65 and 46 yards.
The key to stopping King and the Herd, Gemmell said, will be the continued strong play in Charlotte’s defensive line. A different player seems to step forward each game. Last week it was defensive end Alex Highsmith, who was named C-USA’s defensive player of the week after he had seven tackles (four solo and four for a loss), 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble against Tennessee.
“(Highsmith) played his heart out (against Tennessee),” Gemmell said. “(Tackles) Timmy Horne, Tyler Fain, all those guys up front have really done a great job. (End) Tyriq Harris has done a great job, as well. They’re the heartbeat of the defense. It all starts up front and when they can’t run the ball, they have a hard time getting yards.”
Marshall has one of the country’s top home-field advantages, with an 82.2 winning percentage at Edwards Stadium since 1991, fifth best in the country. And although the 49ers won there in 2016, Charlotte is winless in four road games this season.
“I think we’ve done a great job the last few times we have traveled with the way we are locking in and staying focused,” Gemmell said. “We have a lot of guys who are new to traveling and the older guys really stepped up. We kind of learned as a team how to travel together and really stay locked in to what we need to do to win those games.”
The 49ers and Herd are tied for third in the East Division, one game back in the loss column to Middle Tennessee (6-2, 5-1) and Florida International (6-3, 4-1). The 49ers need to win at least two of their final three games - they’re also at home against FIU next week and at Florida Atlantic on Nov. 24 - to become bowl eligible for the first time in the program’s four-year history in the Bowl Football Subdivision (sixth overall).
“We definitely have to win one on the road,” Gemmell said. “That really comes down to how we prepare throughout the week and how we handle ourselves on the road.”