It's the Battle for the Bell. Not the most renowned of college football rivalries, but a big deal in the region nonetheless.
Marshall in recent years has been known for their high-energy up-tempo pace on offense. Rakeem Cato (4201 passing yards last year, 37 TDs and 11 INT's) is enjoying a successful junior year after having been named Conference USA MVP a year ago.
Wide Receiver Tommy Shuler, after a 110 rec. 1000 plus yard season in 2012, already has 14 rec. and two touchdowns this season.
Marshall comes in with wins in their belt over Miami of Ohio and Gardner-Webb. Ohio bounced back from an abysmal start against Louisville with a week two win over North Texas.
I caught up with Marshall Beat writer Grant Traylor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch to discuss Marshall and their prospects for the matchup.
Hustle Belt: Marshall has obviously been pretty solid thus far this season. They've outscored opponents 107-14. What have you seen in particular that this team has done well?
Grant Traylor: "Most importantly for Marshall, it has been about balance. You look at their offense last year and they were very pass happy. QB Rakeem Cato threw for 4201 yards last year and 37 Touchdowns and while all that was well and good, and he earned C-USA MVP honors because of that, the offense wasn't really all that balanced and so that that hurt the Herd trying to sustain drives and what you've seen in 2013 is the fact that Marshall has been able to sustain the run. And they've been more run-heavy than passing against the first two opponents. Which obviously not taking anything away from the first Miami (OH) and Gardner-Webb, but they're nothing compared to the test Marshall is going to face this week in Ohio because the physicality of Ohio trumps either one of those teams really. And the physicality is something Marshall has tried to work on in the last year they really have tried to get to a level of physicality modeled after Ohio and what Coach Solich does with the Bobcats. It ought to be a very interesting contest this week, and it's not going to be the aerial attack for Marshall that has been seen over the last couple of years and certainly not like last year where Marshall threw 65 times.
HB: They've had a balanced offense. Shuler and Cato are back. Butler has played well, what can we expect from Marshall offensively?
GT: Well you look at Stewart Butler and he's a guy that has put in a lot of work and he has not been the starting running back in either game but he has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in both. Marshall has been balanced with their carries. Starting running back Kevin Grooms has been injured, he has seen very little action, they tested him against Miami and he ripped off a 40-yard run but got caught from behind and Coach Holliday knew he wasn't ready at that point since he got caught from behind. I would expect to see Kevin Grooms try and get back in the mix this week as well. It ought to be a lot of variation. Marshall will have to establish the run if they're to have any chance in this game and they know that. Ohio has sort of pinned its ears back the last couple of years and came at Cato and were able to force some turnovers that enabled the Bobcats to come away with two wins. So fully expect them to try and set a tone early that they will try and be physical but still maintain their hyper-tempo offense that has made them successful over the last couple of years moving the ball.
HB: The defensive line has looked fantastic, helping to create turnovers. Just how solid have they been?
GT: The defensive line has played really well and one of the things that Marshall didn't have last year that they do have this year is some depth. I mean they can roll in two defensive lines and not really miss a beat. Which certainly wasn't the case last year. Defensive Ends Jermiah Taylor and Alex Spezy pretty much played the entire game. And that's one of the things with the offense that Marshall runs...Last year they led the nation averaging 90 plays a game but what that forces your defense into is also playing about 90 plays a game. So those guys would get winded and they weren't able to get the push in the trenches essentially, and that allowed opposing offenses to also get a push in the run game. Plus success in the passing game because Marshall's pass rush was lacking. With this year's depth then, Marshall has been able to consistently get after the quarterback and force some errant throws, force the quarterback's clock to be ticking and him to be looking for the rush. Which causes him to release the ball early and allows the defensive backs to break on the ball. You look at two of the picks last week were because Gardener-Webb quarterback Lucas Betty threw the ball early to avoid contact and get rid of the ball. And that included the 70-yard interception return by for Montarius Lovett. Especially this week that is a point of emphasis because in the two years that Marshall has lost to OU, they've never sacked Tyler Tettleton. And Tettleton does a great job of being able to sustain plays and get that extra second, second and a half for his receivers to get open. So Marshall is going to have to sustain the rush from the outside but also get that push from the interior defensive line so Tettleton can't step up and then roll out which has made him dangerous over the years.
HB: Is there anything you can tell me about Corey Tindal's story? (Tindal is a freshman nickleback who has already assumed a role as a defensive captain)
GT: Tindal is one of those kids that...he changes the defense. He came in for the spring and as soon as he stepped on the field in the spring, you noticed this electricity about the defense that obviously wasn't there last year. Whenever they were mirred near the bottom of the NCAA in total defense and scoring defense, and Tindal brings an aggressive nature and he sort of mirrors new defensive coordinator Chuck Heater's personality. he's an aggressive player that is a very sure tackler and whether bringing him off the edge or whether Tindal is in pass coverage, he makes plays on the ball and makes plays very well. One of the impressive things, you'll look at his statistics and say he has nine tackles in two games, that's really not all that impressive but considering the amount of time they played with the blowout win and the fact that seven of his nine tackles are unassisted tackles in open space, he has made a very big impact. Coach Doc Holliday likened him to Phillip Rivers who Holliday was around at NC State who came in as a freshman and owned his side of the football, and really served as a leader for the team.
HB: Can you just say something about this game, concerning the rivalry and its meaning?
GT: Everybody in Huntington loves this rivalry because they know the skill-level, they know the quality of coaching of Frank Solich. Marshall fans are pretty knowledgeable bunch of fans when it comes to college football...They might not like Ohio all the time but they appreciate how solid of a program that the Bobcats have built under Frank Solich. And that style of play... it's sort of a style of play that embodies the area, embodies these two teams being along the Ohio River sort of blue collar communities. They're hard-workers and they're caring and compassionate but they fight for what they get. And that's why this game really embodies both communities because both teams are going to come and they're gonna play for 60 minutes. And there's not going to be any let up. That was proven last year when Ohio was able to rally from 10 points down to get the win. It's going to be a lot fun, it's going to be a great atmosphere. Obviously Peden Stadium, the fans will be packed I noticed they had a great crowd for the North Texas game and it's one that everybody is really looking forward to taking in this week.
Coach Doc Holliday's crew just narrowly missed taking one from the Bobcats in Huntington year ago, and stand a good chance to improve to 3-0 Saturday night. But the Bobcats just may be ready to hit their stride after grinding out a week two victory over North Texas. Anyone's guess is as good as mine frankly. Don't be surprised to see some points. It's going to happen.