Marshall football: Cato says Herd has to put up or shut up
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Much of the outside world has matched the confidence the Marshall University football team has in itself heading into the 2013 season.
Pundit Phil Steele predicted the Thundering Herd will be college football's most improved team this year. USA Today ranked it 40th among the 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Only Tulsa at No. 26 was rated higher among Conference USA teams. Several people penciled in the Herd for the C-USA title and a Liberty Bowl berth.
The Herd is happy that talk finally becomes action Saturday night. When Marshall kicks off at 7 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network against Miami University, it can show the nation whether all those words were meaningless.
"It's simple," said quarterback Rakeem Cato, the reigning C-USA MVP. "We've got to put up or shut up.
"Marshall University deserves winning," he continued. "Us as players, we have to get the job done."
The Herd's offense held up its end of the bargain last season, leading the FBS in passing yards per game and finishing seventh in scoring. The defense, however, struggled mightily, finishing next to last nationally in points allowed per game. That added up to a 5-7 season and Marshall staying home for bowl season for the sixth time in eight seasons.
Changes came both on offense and defense in the offseason, especially in the coaching staff. Three new offensive assistants and three new defensive assistants, including new defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, call Marshall's football offices home, while assistant Todd Hartley switched from safeties to tight ends. Heater brought with him several new ideas, including a focus on a nickel package he feels will better match up with the growing number of spread offenses in college football.
The Herd's opponents, the RedHawks, are going through some changes of their own after back-to-back 4-8 seasons. Quarterback Zac Dysert, Miami's all-time leading passer and a seventh-round pick of the Denver Broncos, is gone. In his place is Austin Boucher, who played sparingly the last two seasons, but led Miami to four straight wins, a Mid-American Conference title and a GoDaddy.com Bowl victory in 2010.
He won't have Nick Harwell as a target, though. The receiver, who caught 229 passes for 3,166 yards and 23 touchdowns in his Miami career, was dismissed in March following an arrest and transferred to Kansas. Defensively, the RedHawks get back redshirt senior Austin Brown, who missed all but two games last season with a back injury. Corner Dayonne Nunley, a two-time all-MAC first-team pick, also is back to 100 percent after a knee injury forced him to miss the final game-and-a-half of 2012.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said the Herd won't fool itself into thinking it can steamroll Miami based on the events of last season. With so much change in both programs, surprises are likely.
"Anytime you are going into a first game there are a lot of unknowns, regardless of who you play," Holliday said. "We have to be extremely sound in what we're doing. You have to be pretty simple. First games are always going to have adjustments that have to be made before the game ends.
"There's no doubt that we are going to see something that we haven't seen or prepared for," he added. "We just have to be able to adjust to all those situations and we have to do it pretty quickly."
The Herd can't wait to step onto the field and do those things, getting its first crack at justifying the faith that college football experts have in it this season. The offense wants to prove it's no one-year wonder, that it cannot just replicate last year's gaudy numbers, but surpass them. The defense wants to prove the problems of last season's dismal performance have been solved.
Overall, senior defensive lineman Alex Bazzie said, the Herd wants to show the nation that it's solid in every category, that it's a team that will earn respect both offensively and defensively and is capable of living up to lofty expectations.
"We've never been known as a unit," Bazzie said.
"We just want to be known and identified, when they say Marshall, it's not 'Oh, that's that team with the great offense.' It's going to be 'Oh, that's a good team.' We are a balanced program with great athletes, great men and a complete team."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.