|Colorado State, Marshall match wits in New Mexico Bowl|
New Mexico Bowl opponents Colorado State and Marshall followed similar trajectories on the way to Saturday's matchup at Dreamstyle Stadium in Albuquerque.
Marshall (7-5) opened the season 6-1 before a 1-4 slide to close the campaign. The Thundering Herd lost three games in that stretch by less than a touchdown, including decisions of two points to UTSA and one point to Southern Mississippi in the final two games.
Likewise, Colorado State (7-5) opened 6-2, but went 1-3 down the stretch with losses of three points at Wyoming on Nov. 4, and a 59-52 overtime defeat against Boise State on Nov. 11 in which the Broncos rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in 1:41.
Colorado State salvaged the regular season and guaranteed itself a bowl bid with a 42-14 rout of San Jose State on Nov. 18.
"It's been a difficult last three weeks, but our guys responded and came out and finished the way that I wanted to in the regular season," coach Mike Bobo said in his postgame press conference following the win.
The New Mexico Bowl offers an opportunity to close 2017 on a high note. And while the Thundering Herd and Rams followed similar paths to this game, their recent results in the postseason have been polar opposites.
Marshall is 5-0 in bowl games since 2009. The Herd missed the 2016 postseason, but Saturday's contest marks a chance for the outgoing seniors to finish their careers at 3-0 in bowls.
"Our kids understand the only good bowls are the bowls you win," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. "You can win that bowl game, (tight end Ryan) Yurachek can walk out of here saying, 'You know what? We won three straight bowls.'"
Conversely, Colorado State dropped its past three bowl games in 2014 (Las Vegas), 2015 (Arizona) and 2016 (Famous Idaho Potato). The Rams' last postseason win came in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl.
A loss Saturday would mark three straight 7-6 finishes for Colorado State under third-year coach Bobo.
"It's all about building momentum and continuing off what you finished with in a previous season," Rams quarterback Nick Stevens said of the bowl game following Colorado State's regular-season finale. "It means a lot to us seniors."
Marshall and Colorado State have never played, but the programs have some recent shared history. Both programs were in the mix for the Power Five conferences' automatic berth into a New Year's Six bowl game in 2014, but dropped games to close the regular season.
In 2017, Colorado State plays with a style similar to that of Holliday's 2014 Marshall bunch, which finished third in the nation in scoring. The Rams average 501 yards of total offense per game, No. 10 in the nation, and score at a 33.8-points per game clip.
Stevens ranks No. 15 nationally at 289.9 passing yards per game, and wide receiver Michael Gallup accounts for 112.1 of that. Gallup was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top wide receiver.
Holliday said he anticipates the Stevens-Gallup connection to remain dangerous despite coaching staff shake-ups at Colorado State. The Rams lost offensive coordinator Will Friend, who is joining newly named head coach Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee. The New Mexico Bowl is also the final game for Rams defensive coordinator Marty English before he retires.
Staff changes and bowl-game festivities are just some of the background noise that could impact Saturday's outcome.
"The team that handles the distractions, that has the best week of preparations between now and Saturday, with all that goes in, will win," Holliday said.
While All-Conference USA defensive back Malik Gant and the Marshall defense prepare to slow Colorado State's potent passing attack, senior quarterback Chase Litton aims to attack a Rams defense that surrendered 27.5 points per game.
Yurachek should play a key role. He closed out his all-conference regular season with three touchdown receptions against Southern Miss on Nov. 25.
For the seniors, the New Mexico Bowl is one last opportunity to go out a winner.
"Ryan, (running back) Tony (Pittman), they're my best friends," Litton said following the loss. "When I first came in, I was the fourth-string. I was a freshman who people really didn't expect much from. I stuck with them. I came in and studied film with these guys and lifted with them. They believed in me."