UConn-Marshall Preview

Marshall hasn't been part of the FBS for a particularly long time but is well-versed in bowl games and winning them.

Connecticut is just happy to be back in one.

The Thundering Herd have a chance to record 10 wins and a postseason victory for the third consecutive year when they face the Huskies in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Saturday at Tropicana Field.

Since Doc Holliday was named coach, Marshall (9-3) has won all four of its bowl appearances. The first one came days after his hiring in 2009 and he didn't coach in that game, but he led the Thundering Herd to a St. Petersburg Bowl win in 2011 before winning the 2013 Military Bowl to finish with 10 victories and the 2014 Boca Raton Bowl to finish 13-1.

Marshall is 9-2 in bowl games since joining the FBS (then Division I) in 1997, and Holliday came up with a reasonable explanation for that success.

"You get places that are expecting to go win national championships or something and are actually not playing for them, sometimes it's a letdown going to a particular bowl because you thought you were gonna go somewhere else," he said. "I'm not talking about us per se, but some of the other schools. But there's not a letdown with our kids. They're excited to be going where they are, excited to have the opportunity to play another football game. I think it's the kids you have, they love ball."

A victory would make Marshall the only Group of Five school with at least 10 wins in each of the past three seasons, joining Alabama, Baylor, Clemson, Florida State, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon.

Holliday pointed to this game being crucial because only one Group of Five school can make a major bowl, a spot earned this year by American Athletic Conference champion Houston.

"These bowls are always important amongst the Group of Five, to position yourself for that spot in the future because there is one spot for all of us for the highest-ranked team," he said. "I think you can kinda set that up for the following year by the way you play in bowl games, especially when you're playing against people from the other Group of Five conferences."

That's what he gets with Connecticut (6-6), the only team to have beaten the 14th-ranked Cougars. That 20-17 win on Nov. 21 made the Huskies bowl eligible for the first time since 2010, when they lost to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

UConn needs a victory to finish with a winning record for the first time since that season.

"You have the seniors most importantly that have been the catalyst, the backbone to turning this program around and have persevered through so much adversity," second-year coach Bob Diaco said. "They now have an opportunity to go out as winners, go to a bowl and win the bowl."

That's something UConn hasn't done since defeating South Carolina in the 2009 PapaJohn's.com Bowl. The program has a 3-2 bowl record.

"Usually we're getting ready to go home right about now," senior defensive lineman Julian Campenni said.

The first meeting between these schools could be a low-scoring affair.

UConn and Marshall ranked second in their conferences in total defense and were No. 1 against the pass and in points allowed - each gave up fewer than 20 per game.

The Thundering Herd boast the Conference USA defensive player of the year in linebacker Evan McKelvey, who had 113 tackles to rank second in the league. The sixth-year senior is the team's only player who was around for the 2011 St. Petersburg Bowl win.

"We came to the program back then and we weren't a great team at first," McKelvey said. "But we had a mindset that we were going to turn the program around, and maybe that bowl game was the first big step for us. ... Now, it's kind of like we've gotten to where we want it to be, and we need to keep it going."

The top defensive player for UConn is all-AAC first-teamer Jamar Summers, whose seven interceptions tied for third nationally. Three of them, including one that sealed the Houston upset, came during a three-game win streak that put the Huskies above .500 before closing with a loss at then-No. 25 Temple.

UConn tied for 10th in the FBS with 17 interceptions.

That doesn't bode well for a Marshall team which has relied more on the passing game and freshman Chase Litton since losing top rusher Devon Johnson to a season-ending injury in mid-October. Litton has been inconsistent but shows flashes of promise, including a 486-yard game at Charlotte on Halloween followed by a pair of three-touchdown performances.

Connecticut has little firepower offensively, averaging 17.8 points to rank 10th-worst in the FBS.

The good news for the Huskies is that starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs is back after missing most of the last two games with a concussion. He's had five games with at least 200 yards passing and three with at least 70 rushing.

"Going to a bowl game was our goal all year," Shirreffs said. "It's such a big honor. It's the day after Christmas so I get to spend Christmas with my family away from my actual family."

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