HUNTINGTON - When Ohio and Marshall clash tonight, there is more at stake than a bell.For the host Thundering Herd, at least, there should be a lot more.The Battle of the Bell rings back to life at 6:30 tonight at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, with Marshall winning 10 of the last 12 in the 55-game rivalry. But that's only trivia, as the Bobcats have the bell in their possession.They ripped that bell away last year in Athens, Ohio, donning black jerseys and running through a turnover-prone, shell-shocked Herd 44-7. The Bobcats, who executed a fake punt while up 37-7, sprinted on the field and rang the bell as if they won the national championship.
With that, a neighborly rivalry got a little more spirited."This is a rivalry game, plus they beat us really bad last year and we're always thinking about that," said Herd receiver Antavious Wilson. "We're coming back with a strong mentality on how we're going to win this game."But today's contest runs deeper than a little boiling blood.A year after winning 10 games for the first time since 1968 and rallying to win their first bowl game ever, the Bobcats (2-0) come to Huntington as the preseason favorites in the Herd's former home, the Mid-American Conference. Now the Bobcats are receiving votes in both major polls.Even more startling, from a historical perspective, is the Bobcats being a touchdown road favorite. If they win, they'll start 2-0 on the road for the first time in 36 years.With a win at Penn State and a dusting of New Mexico State, Ohio may be a Conference USA championship-caliber squad. Or better - a Yahoo story suggests the Bobcats could become the "Boise State of the Midwest."
"We can be kind of like a Boise State," quarterback Tyler Tettleton told Yahoo's Eric Adelson. "We're still not at a top level but we can be recognized across the country."If you're not buying that, you can think of this as a ninth conference game for the Herd. And if you can't think of it that way, just consider Marshall's following task - a sneaky-tough league opener at Rice next week.With that in mind, tonight is a golden opportunity for Marshall to improve the following:The suddenly fast-paced, high-powered offense - Marshall gets a stern test from a senior-loaded Ohio defense that returned everybody short of linebacker Noah Keller and injured cornerback Travis Carrie, or so it seems.
It is early, but the Thundering Herd is in a place it hasn't been in a decade, prominent in the Division I FBS passing yardage statistics. With 413 yards against West Virginia and 430 more against Western Carolina, the Herd has amassed 843 yards through the skies, tops in the land.
The Bobcats, who held the Herd to 11-of-29 passing and picked off Rakeem Cato four times last year, have noticed.
"Rakeem, he does a great job with the offense," said OU nickel back Nathan Carpenter. "They've got a lot of pass-play guys and they get the ball out of [the quarterback's] hands quick and they make big plays. We're going to have to do our job, and don't let them get ahead while they can."Marshall's lean-and-maybe-mean defense faces a tough two-pronged Ohio offense, led by dual-threat quarterback Tettleton and Beau Blankenship, who has rushed for 109 yards against Penn State and 168 against New Mexico State.
The 5-foot-9, 202-pound junior from Norman, Okla., is running behind a beefy, seasoned line consisting of all fourth- and fifth-year starters."Ohio's offense makes you very, very disciplined," said MU defensive coordinator Chris Rippon. "They have the patience because of their maturity that they'll slug it out and slug it out and then, all of a sudden, it breaks. Even on third down, you have to account for Tettleton's scrambling."We hope that since this is the third year that we're playing them [since coach Doc Holliday's staff arrived] that we have a better feel for who they are."
And then there's Tettleton, who tortured the Herd in his third career start last year with three passing touchdowns and one more on the ground."Tyler's probably the best quarterback I've played against," said Ohio safety Gerald Moore. "I not only practiced against him, I work out with him, I see him on a daily basis. His preparation is the key to his success."Marshall's young defense, with one senior in the two-deep on the front seven, is still finding its way. The 69-34 loss at West Virginia speaks for itself; the unit rebounded with a solid first half against Western Carolina before softening.Fifty-two weeks ago, the Bobcats romped for 559 total yards. There is much for MU's defense to prove."All I remember is 282 [rushing yards] and 43 [missed tackles]," Rippon said. "I'm not going back to that game [but] it's a point of reference."As for special teams, the Bobcats have their most accomplished place-kicker ever in Matt Weller, but a freshman punter in Grant Venham. Marshall returner Andre Snipes-Booker is looking for his first long return of the season, kickoff or punt.
Any other long plays - Marshall had 22 scrimmage plays of double-digit yards against Western Carolina - will be welcomed by the home side. Solid play in all facets will be needed to bring that bell, and regained respect, back across the Ohio River."We've had this one circled on our calendars; we're ready for this one," said MU guard John Bruhin. "A big rivalry, we're just ready to get after them. They're a good opponent, it's going to be one heck of a game."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com