OXFORD, Ohio — If you were really cynical about Marshall’s football schedule, you could call this the first of 12 “trap” games.
Wisecracks aside, today’s contest at Miami (Ohio) works like the classic trap, even if it is the season opener.
Back in the day — think Marshall’s last tour of the Mid-American Conference — a few thousand green-clad fans would clog the two-lane road into this small town, being met by however many red-clad fans. The sides would sneer at each other, maybe lob an insult or two.
The last time a Marshall team bused into Yager Stadium in 2003, the hosts were bent on revenge, and had the means to exact it. You might remember that Ben Roethlisberger guy, right?
This year’s Miami team is merely looking to end a 16-game losing streak. The RedHawks have a coach with a winning pedigree, a quarterback who made a respectable run at being a Notre Dame starter, and more experience all the way around. There seems to be an excitement, a hope that the program’s former glory can be restored.
For Marshall, there lies the uncertainty.
“There’s a lot of unknowns in the first game, a lot of unknowns with a new coaching staff,” said MU coach Doc Holliday.
For older Thundering Herd fans, it just seems weird that Marshall can march into Oxford as a 24-point favorite. After all, the Herd has won only four times in 21 games here, the largest margin being a 21-0 whitewash 75 years ago.
Can the Herd go in and squash the RedHawks’ emotion, and do it early?
According to the expectations, yes. Miami is part of a schedule that Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde called “the easiest schedule in the history of the sport,” and the Herd is supposed to spank the RedHawks and several other teams really, really hard.
And why not? This Marshall team is loaded, pure and simple.
On the experience side, consider this: The returning Herd players logged more than 200 starts last season alone, with the career start total topping 400. Most come from the defense, where the Herd showed its greatest improvement from 2012.
Heaven help the RedHawks if quarterback Rakeem Cato, receiver Tommy Shuler, defensive tackle James Rouse and others improve substantially from 2013, but that is the expectation.
As Cato tries to dissect the Miami defense, as he has done to so many, he is launching his bid to sweep five MU career passing records — attempts, completions, passing yards, total yards and touchdown passes (see stats in game capsule). He also is shooting to extend his streak of 32 games with a touchdown pass.
But, as always, those goals are secondary. He is ready to begin a senior season to remember.
“It’s just us, for us to capitalize on our system,” Cato said. “Just going into our offense, working our offense at the highest potential. If you’ve got to adapt in a game, you can adapt, but you just go in there with a clear mindset, focus on our offense and just [get] ready to play ball.”
The Herd’s defense is facing perhaps even greater unknowns. Miami coach Chuck Martin admitted this week that his team is still figuring out what it can do well, but this is almost certain: The RedHawks should be able to average more than the 9.8 points a game of last year.
MU coaches and players expect as much, with Martin bringing along graduate transfer quarterback Andrew Hendrix and big tight end Alex Welch from Notre Dame.
“Early in his career, he was competing for the starting job,” MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said of Hendrix. “Rotated in there and played legitimate snaps in the bowl game three years ago. I don’t know what happened in between, but last year he played at times. He was the quarterback on field at the end of the USC game; other games he showed up as well, they had a special package for him.
“We’ve watched every snap he’s taken at Notre Dame, and he’s a pretty impressive talent.”
Whether Hendrix will have time to throw or not is in question. So is anything Miami tries on both sides, as Marshall has an apparent advantage in all areas. And even if the RedHawks stop the Herd offense, punter Tyler Williams becomes a not-so-secret weapon.
But really, the contest comes down to three questions:
n How much emotion can Miami generate?
n How well can Marshall match that emotion?
n With a championship-caliber team facing one with a long losing streak, will it matter?
Reach Doug Smock at email@example.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.