MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Marshall can't win the Conference USA championship tonight, but it can knock down another barrier - a 3-0 start in league play.Once upon a time, that was considered a divine right by Thundering Herd fans, and with good reason - their team won its first three league games 10 of 13 times from 1992-2004, both in the Southern and Mid-American conferences. Before entering C-USA, the last time the Herd failed to start 3-0 twice in a row was 1990-91.But as Marshall's talent slipped and the degree of difficulty rose in C-USA, a 3-0 start has been elusive, almost a distant dream. Before this season, the Herd has started 2-0 in C-USA games just once, in 2008 - and that was followed by the infamous loss at Alabama-Birmingham.Which brings us to tonight's contest at Middle Tennessee, a 7:30 p.m. EDT start at Floyd Stadium. The resurgent Herd (4-2 overall, 2-0 C-USA) will take on its third conference newcomer in a row and the third of four such opponents.
The Blue Raiders (3-4, 1-2), picked to finish third in the East Division in the coaches' preseason poll, are riding a three-game losing streak, punctuated by a 34-7 roughing-up by North Texas 12 days ago. The Raiders are having injury problems on the offensive line and their defense was gashed for 305 rushing yards by the Mean Green.That didn't look like the same MTSU team that beat Florida Atlantic 42-35 in overtime, or the team that took East Carolina into the fourth quarter before falling 24-17."We've had so many injuries," said coach Rick Stockstill. "We've been decimated in the offensive line; we're down to our third-team center and a freshman right guard now, and we have a redshirt freshman right tackle."Our tailback's been hurt [Jordan Parker], hasn't played much the last two weeks. Just had so many people hurt, it's been frustrating."Amid all that, Stockstill has sparked a quarterback controversy. In the North Texas game, he benched veteran Logan Kilgore in favor of dual-threat freshman Austin Grammer. After Grammer went 6 of 22 passing for 36 yards, Kilgore suggested the strategy backfired.
Experience dictates that Marshall should disregard the Raiders' negatives and consider these events: In September, the Herd faced an Ohio team without both starting guards and still had its roughest defensive outing and lost 34-31. Ten days ago, the Herd rallied in the fourth quarter to squeak by Florida Atlantic 24-23.No matter its health and quarterback status, MTSU will be juiced for tonight - a "Blue Raider Blackout" has been called, with fans and players decked out in solid black. Crowds there consistently hit the 20,000 mark, not enough to fill the 30,788-seat stadium but large enough to make a decent ruckus.The college football scene has expanded on Thursday nights. Still, there are only two games, this one and Kentucky-Mississippi State."That last thing I tell them every Thursday night as we leave the practice field is who is playing Thursday night," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "I tell them to go home and turn on that game and watch. That's what every coach in America is going to be telling their team Thursday night: 'Go watch the Marshall and Middle Tennessee game and see what they're all about.'"The exposure is outstanding and we are lucky to get that."
The Blue Raiders are middle of the pack or lower in C-USA in many statistical categories, but they have good talent on both sides. Offensively, left tackle Darius Johnson and left guard Josh Walker are holding up the otherwise beaten-up line, and 5-foot-7 back Reggie Whatley is a long-play threat.
Strong safety Kevin Byard is already a defensive star as a redshirt freshman, and weak-side linebacker T.T. Barber leads the team in tackling and other mayhem-related categories.If nothing else, the Raiders are at the top of the league and among the nation's best in turnovers forced (20) and sacks (18). They will blitz from everywhere."They give you a lot of stuff to think about, that's the biggest thing," said Bill Legg, MU's offensive coordinator. "They give you a ton of things to think about. From a decision-making standpoint, we're going to be on point, we've got to be smart in what we're doing and we've got to go from there."Marshall enters the game, just its third in 33 days, a confident bunch. The Herd has won its last two games in different fashions - pelting Texas-San Antonio 34-10 at home, then winning that squeaker at FAU.Always confident in the passing game, Herd players feel they've regained the edge in their running game after struggling in the first half at FAU. They rushed for 103 yards after halftime in that game after grinding out 125 for the whole game against a sturdy UTSA front.One thing to keep an eye on: Kevin Grooms is ever closer to 100 percent for the first time all season.
"It's been difficult for all of us mentally because he is a good player and he is very explosive," Holliday said. "You want to see him back to where he was. I saw a little bit of it at FAU, and he has had a week and a half since then. He's going to be a whole lot healthier going into Thursday night than what he has been."Defensively, the Herd is as confident as it has been in several years, and has the stat rankings to back it up - leading C-USA in scoring defense (18.3 points), total defense (301.5 yards) and pass defense efficiency rating by a large margin (98.9 vs. 110.3 for the nearest team). Add to that the third-down conversion rate (30.9 percent, compared to 44.8 percent in 2012).These guys have played a number of mobile offenses, but they'll take on a pure pocket passer in Kilgore."Whatever they come out in, with our defense, I think our guys will be ready to make any adjustments," said defensive end Alex Bazzie. "I don't think there will be anything surprising. We can't let it be surprising; anything they throw at us, we've got to make a fast adjustment to."And Herd players aren't too worried about that "blackout." "We're ready," said tight end Gator Hoskins.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.