HUNTINGTON — As college football season opens up this weekend, it’s a little weird to think that Ohio State University isn’t a part of the festivities.
Yet that doesn’t mean the city of Columbus, Ohio, is without representation.
When Marshall and Eastern Kentucky meet to kick off the 2020 football season at Joan C. Edwards Stadium at 1 p.m. Saturday, the key cog to both offenses will be guys who claim Columbus as their hometown. In all, it’s just a few biscuits shy of 500 pounds of pure running back talent between Marshall’s Brenden Knox and Eastern Kentucky’s Alonzo Booth.
Knox is Marshall’s workhorse as a 6-foot, 220-pound bruiser who gained many of his 1,387 yards between the tackles and after contact in 2019. Those efforts gained him the distinction as Marshall and Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player.
“Marshall has a great back and he does a great job,” Eastern Kentucky coach Walt Wells said of Knox. “He’s a great player for Conference USA and he’s going to be hard to tackle. He’s got good size, good vision. They like to get in there tight in their alignments and push you around.”
On the other roster, Booth returns as a powerful back in his own right, finishing with a team-best 14 touchdowns in 2019 for the Colonels. Even though Wells has a new staff in place at Eastern Kentucky, the one constant they have returning is Booth, who helped the Colonels to one of the Football Championship Subdivision’s top rushing attacks in 2019 at over 200 yards per game.
Schematically, things may appear a bit different for the Colonels, but Booth’s presence should be felt in the game — both figuratively and literally.
“They are going to be a tough football team,” Marshall defensive coordinator Brad Lambert said. “That’s who Eastern Kentucky is. It’s a rough-and-tumble game and I expect that on Saturday.”
While the running backs are solidified for the matchup, the starting quarterbacks for both sides are an unknown for various reasons. Marshall starting quarterback Grant Wells is a Charleston native who will be taking his first in-game snaps at the position for the Herd, but he possesses a skill set that can move the ball vertically and with his legs.
With Wells not having experience, Marshall offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey expects the Colonels to bring pressure at the youngster while loading the box against Knox. That means one-on-one situations on the outside are there to be won by Marshall’s receivers, who are looking to take a leap after being a young group in 2019.
For Eastern Kentucky, Parker McKinney is a quarterback who returns with experience, but after average numbers in the passing game last season, his status as the starter is not clear with Nevada transfer Kaymen Cureton and backup Dakota Allen also in the mix. McKinney finished with 1,371 yards passing and seven touchdowns, but had nine interceptions last season.
The uncertainty at quarterback for each team likely means Saturday’s game will have an old-school feel to it, which seems to suit the strengths of both programs.
Marshall’s offensive line boasts of nearly 130 starts of experience with guards Alex Mollette and Cain Madden joining the tackle trio of Will Ulmer, Tarik Adams and Josh Ball as veterans. Center Alex Salguero is the newbie of the group, but he’s a redshirt senior who came in at the same time as the others.
The matchup renews an old rivalry from the Division I-AA (now FCS) days for the Herd, which has battled the Colonels several times over the years. Marshall leads the series with Eastern Kentucky 11-8-1, with the first meeting dating back 94 years.
The teams met each season from 1985 to 1992 when the Colonels were a perennial I-AA contender and the Herd was making its ascent to its first Division I-AA title in 1992, which started with a 44-0 playoff win over the Colonels in the opening round.
Shannon Morrison, a former safety from that 1992 I-AA Championship team, is now the secondary coach for Eastern Kentucky.
Billy Brown, who was at Marshall for several years as assistant strength and conditioning coach, is now the director of Football Sports Performance at Eastern Kentucky.
The game will be televised by ESPN