Ohio Bobcats vs. Marshall Thundering Herd: A Way Too Early Non-Conference Preview

Rakeem Cato is ready to light up college football in 2014. - Rob Carr

Ohio goes up against one of the most explosive offenses in college football in Week 3 for the latest installment in a storied rivalry that dates back more than a century.

Marshall vs. Ohio is a rivalry that dates back 109 years. The "Battle for the Bell" pits these two local rivals (and former conference foes) together in one of the best mid-major rivals this nation has to offer. After a four year hiatus in the rivalry (five if we don't count the 2009 Bowl matchup between the two) the rivalry returned to action in 2010. Ohio lost that first game—the Bobcats 10th in the last 11—before pulling off three straight wins in the series, including a thrilling 34-31 victory in Athens, Ohio this past year.

This fall the rivalry returns to Huntington, West Virginia for the last game before another four-year hiatus sets in. Ohio holds a 32-19-6 lead in the series, but the Herd seem primed and ready for vengeance in 2014.

Marshall Thundering Herd 2013 Rewind:

As Bill Connelly wrote in his Big Marshall Preview, the Herd have been stockpiling talent for sometime. Last year that talent began to pay off in the form of an impressive 10-4 season; Marshall's best since before it left the MAC. After starting the season 2-2 (including a loss at Ohio), the Thundering Herd rattled off an 8-2 record down the stretch, with losses to only Middle Tennessee and Rice (in the Conference USA championship), and won the C-USA East. The Herd's offense rumbled all season long and resulted in a 31-20 win over Maryland in the Military Bowl.

Mascot:

The official nickname of Marshall University's athletic teams is the Thundering Herd (although Big Green is also used by many). Legend has it the team got its current nickname from sportswriter Duke Ridgley in the late 1920s, who referred to the team as the "Thundering Herd" in reference to a popular novel of the time.  The name wasn't officially the school's nickname until 1965 after much controversy and several other nicknames were used (sadly, the Judges never stuck).

The Herd are represented by a costumed mascot that is a two-legged American Bison decked out in Marshall green, known as Marco the Bison. He can dance, too.

Conference/Division:

The Thundering Herd of Marshall play in Conference USA. You may remember that they used to be a part of the MAC, twice before actually. After pummeling the MAC upon their return in the late 90s, the Herd scampered off to C-USA for more money. They play in the C-USA East division, and have struggled to reach the success of the late 1990s, early 2000s.

Stadium:

Marshall plays its home games at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, on campus  in Huntington, West Virginia. The Herd have called the 38,019 seat stadium home since it opened in 1991, originally it was known as Marshall University Stadium. In 2003 it was renamed after Joan C. Edwards, a philanthropist and longtime donor to Marshall University. The FieldTurf playing surface is named after her husband, John F. Edwards (John F. Edwards field). The Herd's dominance at home is unparalleled. The hold the FBS record for best home winning percentage, even better than Alabama's at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Last Bowl Appearance:

Marshall last appeared in a bowl this past season. The Herd beat Maryland 31-20 in the Military Bowl. The Herd are 8-2 all-time in Bowl Games, having not played in a Bowl until 1997.

Head Coach:

Doc Holliday—no, not that Doc Holliday—is the head football coach at Marshall. Now entering his fifth season as the head bull of the Herd, Holliday has an all-time record of 27-24. The former Florida, NC State and West Virginia assistant is known for his ability to recruit, and for being a WVU alumnus.

Five Key Players:

Offense:

Pardon the offensive bias in the Five Key Players, but when it comes to the Herd, offense stands out. They have a true senior starter entering his fourth season at the helm of the offense with career marks of 10,176 yards, a 64 percent completion percentage and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 3-to-1, in Rakeem Cato; coming off a year in which he threw significantly less and still managed to toss for nearly 4,000 yards and have 39 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions.

They have an explosive backfield loaded with talent and a penchant for big plays, and a receiving corps that despite losing two of its top targets from a year ago, returns one of the best slots in the game (Tommy Shuler) and a ton of talent in the wings. Marshall's fast-paced attack could put up close to 50 points a game this year without blinking.

Defense:

While Marshall's offense took all the glory in 2013, the defense is much better than it appears on the surface. The secondary is about as deep as you'll find on any mid-major roster, and the Herd return five starters, including a supremely talented sophomore in A.J. Leggett. This unit combined for 33 pass break ups and 10 interceptions in 2013, and expect them to be just as aggressive in 2014.

The pass rush is decent, but could prove to be much better in 2013, once again anchored by tackle James Rouse (14 tackles-for-loss, 6 sacks in 2013). Run defense is where Marshall will likely struggle. Teams attacked Marshall hard on the ground this past year (Ohio being one of the exceptions). The Herd lost their nose tackle and primary run stuffer. But the secondary is deep and the linebacking corps returns all six of its main contributors, so the defense should be just as aggressive and be able to hold opponents down enough to let the offense blaze past in 2014.

Special Teams:

Marshall is loaded on special teams as well. The Herd are without Devon Smith, a dynamic punt returner, this year, but they do return a solid duo of kick returners, a kickoff specialist who had 52 touchbacks to his name as a freshman, and a field goal kicker who completed 67 percent of his kicks from 40+ yards. The Herd won't give Ohio (or anytime) easy field position from kickoffs and punts.

Early Prediction:

While I'm an Ohio guy through-and-through, I just don't like the Bobcats' chances in this one. Marshall has the potential (and weak schedule) to run the tables in the regular season, and while Ohio's defense will be better than the unit that held Cato to a single touchdown this past season, the Herd's offense is better and Ohio can't count on the turnovers that sent the game in its direction in 2013.

Plus, this is in the Herd's territory, where no one has had long-term success. While Ohio holds a three-game winning streak in the Battle for the Bell, I expect Marshall to attack early, and often and reclaim the Bell until these two teams meet again in 2019.

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