On Saturday, the Ohio Bobcats take on the Marshall Thundering Herd in the 'Battle for the Bell' in what serves as Ohio's home opener. To get the lowdown on Marshall, we talk to James Collier of Underdog Dynasty.
Hustle Belt: Who are three Marshall players Ohio fans should know before Saturday's game?
Underdog Dynasty: I could easily say Devon Johnson, Michael Birdsong and Tiguan Lang but that would be much too obvious. Johnson rushed for over 1700 yards & 17 TD last season, Birdsong led Marshall to a win in comeback fashion over Purdue last week, going 7-8 for 83 yards in the game-winning drive and Lang had two pick-sixes--one only 7 seconds into the game--and a career-high 17 tackles.
So take those as my freebies. Here are the three players fans need to know.
- Deon-Tay McManus: He arrived at Marshall as a TE, moved to the slot last season and now works on the outside. McManus is a big, physical guy outside who loves bump coverage. McManus has great hands and solid speed and if he wins the battle at the line of scrimmage, he's going for six. After the way Marshall exploited Ohio's secondary last season, I expect a big game from Marshall's outside receivers and McManus is just the guy for the job.
- DJ Hunter: This guy as been all over the field. He came in as a linebacker, moved to safety in 2012 due to major injuries in the secondary only to move back to linebacker the following season. Last season, Hunter worked as the SAM and was fourth on the team in tackles. He also had 10 TFL and 5.5 sacks. Hunter is an All-Conference linebacker and has a knack for finding the ball. Defensive coordinator Chuck Heater likes keeping Hunter as close to the ball as possible, and elected to leave Hunter on the field when Marshall goes into its nickel package. His fellow linebackers call him the "Landshark" because he's always on the hunt.
- Gary Thompson: Thompson has had several flashes of brilliant plays haunted with an injury bug that just won't stay away. For now, Thompson is healthy and it showed last week. Thompson finished with 10 tackles, 2.5 TFL and a sack. Thompson's pressure also created one of four Purdue interceptions in the ballgame. In limited action last season, he had 18 tackles and 2 sacks. Thompson is a physical body coming off the edge that creates havoc in the backfield. If Thompson can get to Vick or Sprague early on, fans should only expect him to live in the backfield the entire contest.
True or False: This Marshall them is better than the one that thumped the Bobcats last season.
This is a tough question to answer because it really can be answered both ways. Comparing the offensive explosiveness of last years team to this year, I will say false. Yes Devon Johnson is there, but Bill Legg has yet to hand Birdsong the keys to the Ferrari, aka Marshall's fast-paced offense. Don't get me wrong, this team can go fast but typically does not. On the other hand, this year's team is a smarter team than last. If Cato was in the same shoes as Birdsong last weekend against Purdue, I'm not certain Marshall wins the game. Birdsong managed the game, took what Purdue gave him and only had the one bad read that resulted in the pick. Of the two qualities discussed, Ill take the game management of Birdsong, especially since the game is in Athens.
Rakeem Cato was an excellent quarterback for the Thundering Herd and picked apart the Ohio defense last season. Can Michael Birdsong, who has replaced the graduated Cato under center, do the same?
Birdsong is a gamer and this is not his first rodeo. He started as a true freshman and sophomore for James Madison and went up against West Virginia his freshman year at FedEx Field in DC. Birdsong said that was a crazy environment and the WVU fans rode him the whole game. Birdsong has a stronger arm than Cato, can execute the read option and has a solid receiving core surrounding him. Cato was something special but I like what I see from Birdsong more and more every time he takes the field. This weekend will be a good test for him, having to not only manage the game, but also the hostile crowd at Peden Stadium.
If Marshall has a fatal flaw - or flaws - what is it and how can it be exploited?
The question coming out of camp was how well Marshall could stop the run and get pressure from off the edges. Against Purdue, Thompson, Joe Massaquoi and Armonze Daniel passed the test. The trio combined for 25 of Marshall's 115 tackles. If Marshall can't control the edges, Ohio will run for days. With the size of Marshall's linebackers, Ohio does not fare well if the running game stay in the trenches between the tackles.
Does the 'Battle for the Bell' still mean something to Marshall fans?
-Absolutely. The Bell is a staple in this rivalry and has a special meaning to both teams. Players and fans alike understand how big this game is and how special bringing the Bell back home is. This year I expect the tension to be a little more heated considering the winner holds onto the Bell until 2019 when the rivalry renews after a four year hiatus.
Finally, what is your prediction for this game?
I would be shocked if this game played out anything like last year. I think the Bobcats have too many returning players that are another year wiser and stronger to let that happen. The main reason is simply playing in Athens. However, that can be quickly handled if Marhsll can hit a few big plays for scores early in the contest. Last season, Ohio gave up 200 yards on 36 carries to Steward Butler and Devon Johnson as both averaged over 6 yards per carry. But the day belonged to Cato, tossing 4 TDs and over 400 yards through the air. This season, Ohio must find a way to slow Johnson and Watson while containing the depth the Herd offers from its receivers. A healthy Daz Patterson will help the Ohio cause, but Vick is no Tyler Tettleton, the last guy to get a win over the Herd. Marshall is winless there under Holliday but this is the year the Herd gets it done.
Prediction: Marshall 45 Ohio 31
Thanks to James and the gang from Underdog Dynasty for taking time out of their day to answer our questions. You can follow the team blog on Twitter @UnderdogDynasty and James Collier for all your Marshall/Conference USA news @CollierSZLive