Cato, Herd can't afford slow start vs. Bobcats
UNDERSTATEMENT of the week: Marshall got off to a rough start in last year's loss to Ohio.
Yeah, and Savannah State can't hang with the Cowboys and Seminoles.
If you've joked about the Thundering Herd "not showing up" in last year's 44-7 debacle at the Bobcats' Peden Stadium, you're off base. You see, that was the problem - the Herd showed up and played some of its most brutal football in recent memory.
A review of the painful details leads to one theory: The Herd couldn't possibly pull a repeat in the rematch Saturday, could it?
In his third collegiate start, Rakeem Cato threw an interception on his second attempt, a tipped pass caught by Omar Leftwich at the line. The Bobcats drove 39 yards for the first touchdown.
The Herd tied it up on a long pass to Aaron Dobson and held Ohio to a short field goal, but that was the entire first-half highlight package. Cato was heisted by Xavier Hughes and then Travis Carrie, the latter resulting in a 33-yard TD. C.J. Crawford fumbled after gaining a first down (Ohio scored a short field goal), Tyler Tettleton hit Phil Bates on a 50-yard TD pass and Travon Van fumbled to set up another Ohio TD.
By then, it was 34-7, which was the halftime score. The Herd suffered six turnovers and allowed 358 total yards.
The Herd had a similarly ugly first half later in the season at Tulsa, but even that didn't feature six turnovers. For the game, Ohio recorded 22 plays with double-digit yardage, including a 13-yard fake-punt run with the score 37-7.
Ohio will come to Huntington 2-0, with impressive wins over what's left of Penn State and perennially hapless New Mexico State.
So what will be different, besides the venue?
Cato is the obvious starting point. When he watches the film, he might not recognize himself.
For one thing, he shaved the beard. After he threw for 377 yards in a systematic dismantling of Western Carolina on Saturday, he entered postgame interviews wearing that "Fear the Beard" shirt, but sported only an 11 o'clock shadow to back it up.
Fear the scruff?
"Just woke up early one morning, [Friday] morning and just decided to cut it," he said.
If he directs the Herd like he has in the first two games, he will be feared by defenses all over Conference USA. The sample is small and the season is young, but it's already getting tough to place him below another C-USA quarterback in talent and production.
By the numbers, Cato is completing 72.8 percent of his tosses - for comparison, he has the same number of completions (70) as Houston's David Piland, but with 25 fewer attempts. With 790 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception, Cato's passer rating is a league-best 157.14.
Against Western Carolina, Cato and Blake Frohnapfel led the Herd to a school-record 37 first downs (36 vs. Western Carolina, 1987, was the old mark).
(Note: The NCAA lists Cato with 15 more yards and a slightly higher rating. The NCAA's stat program has yet to adjust for the 25-yard touchbacks, so some numbers are overstated. Another consequence of the bogus kickoff rule.)
Cato's best QB matchup remaining could come this month. The Caleb TerBush/Robert Marve hybrid at Purdue is a good guess, if only by name recognition. Rice's Taylor McHargue is an underrated QB, though not by UCLA and Kansas.
That leaves Tettleton of the Mid-American Conference favorite, a year after he racked up 338 total yards and accounted for four TDs against the Herd. He has Cato's completion rate for 581 yards and four touchdowns, and has rushed for two more.
Some of Tettleton's weapons from last year are gone, but running back Beau Blankenship and receiver Donte Foster are threats. Ohio's line has given up just two sacks, which equals what MU's defense has managed.
That spells more trouble for Marshall's defense, adjusted after a gutsy move of D.J. Hunter to strong-side linebacker - or as Hunter would put it, a relocated nickel. That trouble means Cato must keep up his hyper-production pace this week.
As well as Cato has run that spot-ball-and-go attack, he needs to get out of the gate cleaner.
The Herd has failed to score a touchdown in the first three possessions of both games this season. At West Virginia, the result was three punts and a 13-0 deficit. Against Western Carolina, it was two field-goal attempts, a punt and a 3-0 lead that had a few natives getting restless.
Sluggish starts were a theme of the 2011 season, and a reason six of seven Marshall wins were in doubt deep into the fourth quarter. It says here that Cato and the Herd offense cannot start slowly against the Bobcats.
But it also says here that the Herd won't commit six first-half turnovers. Right?
Game time is 6:30 p.m., with the game on television ... nowhere. Not a bad call, all the way around - 6:30 might best bridge the gap between those wanting to get home at a decent hour and fans who could not attend an afternoon game. Lack of TV could boost a gate that should hit the 30,000 mark.
I issue the no-television reminder because when fans can't find the game, we get the calls. I recently cleared three voice-mail messages from Sept. 1, from fans wanting to know where the Herd-WVU game was airing. (Calling our sports department at noon on a Saturday is a guaranteed futile exercise.)
I hope all got where they needed to go then, but Herd fans must know they will either go to the game or listen to Steve Cotton on their radio. As always, we cannot magically get the game on your set.
Eye-popping results of Week 2:
The game wasn't that close, as Houston scored in the final minute and failed on the onside kick. But the teams combined for a 209 plays (Houston, 115-94), 129 passes without an interception (Houston, 77-52), completions (Houston, 53-34) and 78 first downs (Houston 40-38).
The Bulldogs have too many seniors on offense, it seems, to carry the momentum of a projected WAC-pillaging to C-USA. But Sonny Dykes has a good thing going in Ruston, La.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.