Marshall football: Herd ready for another C-USA newbie
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Since the beginning of October, the Marshall University football team's game captains might as well have brought a fruit basket with them to the coin toss ... or maybe a fresh-baked apple pie.
Whatever's the popular way to welcome new neighbors.
When the Thundering Herd takes the Floyd Stadium field at 7:30 tonight in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to face Middle Tennessee State University, it will be the third straight game it has played a first-year Conference USA opponent. The Herd (4-2, 2-0 C-USA) would hope to be as inhospitable to the Blue Raiders (3-4, 1-2 C-USA) as it was against C-USA newcomers University of Texas at San Antonio and Florida Atlantic.
If Marshall bests the Blue Raiders, it will be the Herd's first 3-0 start in Conference USA since joining in 2005 and the team's first three-game win streak since winning its last three of the 2011 season. It also will keep Marshall at the top of C-USA's East Division standings.
That task isn't so simple, specifically because the only experience the Herd has against the Blue Raiders is what it's seen on film. There's no hand-in-the-dirt familiarity with MTSU - or UTSA or FAU, for that matter - that the Herd has with future opponents like Tulsa and East Carolina. It's worked out so far, but center Chris Jasperse said lacking that experience alters preparation a little bit.
"Playing some of those teams, you know how they're going to play and if they're really that good," Jasperse said, "if you know their weaknesses and know they're strengths. These guys, you just see what you see on film. You don't know first-hand, and you don't know what it's like in a game.
"So it's been different for us, but you have to go in there and make them react to us," he added. "We can't react to them."
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday doesn't think the newness factor makes tonight's game any more difficult than a number of other factors - being a Thursday night game on national television (Fox Sports 1) against a team that went 8-4 in the Sun Belt last season. He also feels the Herd is getting the Blue Raiders late enough in the season to be able to prepare well enough through film study.
"Anytime you have a staff change or have somebody new, you're going to have a change as far as what they do offensively and defensively," Holliday said.
"But once you get to this point of the year, though, you're going to base what you do off the last four-to-five games and what they've done in those particular games. We have plenty of film on them from this year and a year ago and extra time to prepare, which should help us," he added.
What the Herd doesn't have is a clear picture of who will start at quarterback for Middle Tennessee. Blue Raiders Coach Rick Stockstill publicly has been mum on the subject after pulling redshirt senior Logan Kilgore out of the game early in a loss to North Texas, inserting redshirt freshman Austin Grammer. Holliday said he'd be surprised if Kilgore - in the MTSU all-time top four in several passing categories - didn't start, but the Herd also was preparing to see Grammer, a less polished passer but a more mobile runner.
"That's part of the game," defensive end Alex Bazzie said, "but it's also difficult on the defense's part, when you try to get used to one type of talent and you get another one thrown at you. You have an older guy who wants to sit in the pocket more, and you have a younger guy where, one or two reads, and he's out of there. At the same time, you can tell they're both athletic and both can make something happen with the ball."
The Blue Raiders could use a win against Marshall to regain its footing. Middle Tennessee has slid to three straight losses entering tonight, including conference losses to East Carolina and North Texas. A division title looks out of reach, but MTSU still would like a bowl berth, something that eluded it in its final Sun Belt season despite winning eight games.
And Middle Tennessee is good in two areas that can shift momentum. The Blue Raiders are second in the conference in sacks and tied for second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in turnovers gained. That alone, Jasperse said, is reason enough to toss aside the record, the losing streak and Marshall's previous success against first-year foes and focus on Middle Tennessee's strengths.
"That's why you can't look at the records," Jasperse said. "You just have to look at the film, see how you can take advantage of what they can give you and try to do what you do best."
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.