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Marshall football: Herd faces big challenge up front

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Marshall defensive coordinator Chris Rippon likes to nickname Conference USA, where the Thundering Herd calls home, "Conference NBA" for its high scoring and quick offenses.

On Saturday, the Herd will go from  "Conference NBA" to "Conference LBS," and from big point totals to big bodies.

Marshall visits Big Ten mainstay Purdue at 3:15 p.m., to be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. The Herd must contend with one of the beefiest opponents it will see this season, especially in the trenches, and hopes its overall team speed presents problems for the Boilermakers.

That's Rippon's hope, considering Purdue's starting offensive line averages 304.5 pounds per man - the second-heaviest offensive line Marshall (2-2, 1-0 Conference USA) has faced behind West Virginia. Marshall's starting defensive line averages 262.5 pounds per man. That could present some issues for a defense allowing an average of 509 yards overall and 243.75 yards on the ground. And the Boilermakers (2-1) like to run, averaging 219 rushing yards per game.

And while Marshall's defense made the plays it absolutely had to - making a touchdown-saving tackle that allowed the Herd to force overtime and ultimately beat Rice - it struggled mightily.

The Herd allowed 647 yards - 301 on the ground and 346 through the air.

"Our defensive line is where we thought it would be and is continuing to play hard," Rippon said. "I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about us getting engulfed with that kind of team - big offensive line, zone team. If we can dent it a little bit, make the back change his path a little bit, that's where you chase them down and make the play."

Marshall's offense doesn't have it any easier. Purdue's defensive line is the biggest the Herd has faced all year at an average of nearly 297 pounds per man.

It's anchored by all-Big Ten pick Kawann Short, a 6-foot-3, 315-pounder considered one of the 2013 NFL Draft's top prospects. And while he weighs 315 pounds, Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg said he doesn't move like it.

"You turn the film on and they throw screen on the other side of the field away from him and he freaking sticks his foot in the ground and runs over there and is in on the tackle for about a five or six-yard gain to a skill guy," Legg said. "That's the kind of talent this guy has."

While the Herd hasn't seen a defensive line as big as Purdue's, the Boilermakers haven't seen an offense as prolific as Marshall's. The Herd has run more plays from scrimmage than any other team in the FBS (371) and is a well-known passing team, ranked No. 1 at 383.5 yards per game behind quarterback Rakeem Cato. But it showed it could run as well, gaining 334 yards on the ground against Rice.

Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said quickness remains the offense's strength - how fast they can run a play and how fast the players are once the ball is in their hands.

That should be able to counteract Purdue's defensive size advantage.

"We can do a lot of things with our offense that we don't need to block the front guys as long," Holliday said. "We have some things in our offense now that can allow Cato to get the ball out of his hands quick. We have the ability to run the ball if they give it to us. We have the screen game to where we don't have to block those guys as long."

Marshall's players are excited to line up against a Big Ten team like Purdue, to get the chance to face an opponent from a BCS automatic qualifying conference.

The Herd knows what a win against a foe like that can do for a team's psyche. They experienced it when they won last year at Louisville.

"Anytime you go into another team's arena, especially a team like that, and come out with a win, it'll definitely get guys' confidence up and have them feeling better about themselves and carrying that energy into the next game," defensive end Jeremiah Taylor said. "I think a big win would definitely help us out."

 Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.


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