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Herd, USF tango in Tampa

December 20, 2018

TAMPA, Fla. — Storylines are abound as Marshall University takes on the University of South Florida in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl at 8 p.m. Thursday in Raymond James Stadium.

There is the camaraderie of the head coaches — Marshall’s Doc Holliday and USF’s Charlie Strong — who both served on the staff of Urban Meyer at the University of Florida during the 2006 national championship season.

There is also a pair of long snapping brothers going head to head in Marshall’s Matthew Beardall and USF’s Andrew Beardall.

What about Marshall wide receivers coach Dallas Baker returning to the place where he won Outback Bowl MVP honors on Jan. 2, 2006, when he led Florida past the Iowa Hawkeyes with a two-touchdown performance that culminated with a 31-24 win.

Or, USF defensive tackles coach Sean Cronin recruited many of the Marshall players that his team will face when he was with the Thundering Herd from 2013-16 as defensive ends coach.

Yes, the storylines are plenty. But there is one that sticks out. This game is about streaks.

Marshall enters the game as the winner of its last six bowl games, including all five with Holliday at the helm. USF is looking to snap a five-game season skid after starting 7-0 and being nationally ranked.

“We’re excited about the bowl and look forward to it,” Holliday said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us. I’ve known Coach Strong for a number of years and his team will be well-prepared.”

The No. 1 question going into the game is whether USF quarterback Blake Barnett will play after missing time and being ineffective late in the year because of injuries.

With Barnett out, USF struggled and ended up losing its final five games, albeit to solid competition down the stretch.

Barnett’s inclusion would give the Bulls a quarterback who is in the top 25 nationally in passing yards per game while also offering a veteran presence that has proven a knack for the big moment with three double-digit comeback wins.

Barnett’s top targets are senior Tyre McCants and freshman Randall St. Felix, who has proven to be a big playmaker.

Still, the South Florida offense runs through its backfield, which boasts a pair of strong talents in Jordan Cronkrite and Johnny Ford, who combined for more than 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. Cronkrite leads the way with 1,095 yards and nine touchdowns while Ford has amassed 737 yards and eight scores.

“These two running backs are those guys that when you give them a crease, they have a chance to go for 80 (yards),” Marshall defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said. “That’s always a problem. The run game is what you really get concerned about.”

Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green is having a solid season, but will have to perform well - especially in the red zone - for the Herd to get out of town with its third bowl victory in eight years in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.

Wide receivers Tyre Brady and Obi Obialo are rangy players that will get some single-coverage matchups on the outside against the South Florida cornerbacks, so those one-on-one battles must end up on the positive side for the Herd.

However, the biggest impact might be felt from running back Brenden Knox, who has taken the backfield by storm since logging his first carries for the Herd a month ago. In the loss to Virginia Tech, Knox finished with 204 yards and two touchdowns while breaking several big gains against an ACC defense.

Weather (rain) is expected to be a factor, so the team that makes the fewest mistakes is likely to hoist a trophy at night’s end.

Will the streaks continue or will both end at Raymond James Stadium?

There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to play and find out who is the baddest in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl.

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