HUNTINGTON — As Marshall opens Conference USA competition Saturday, the Thundering Herd will face a Middle Tennessee team with a 1-3 record and three lopsided losses. Yet that doesn’t tell the story of the Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee is a battle-tested bunch that will provide a great challenge for the Herd. Three of Blue Raiders’ first four opponents were Power 5 schools, which contributed greatly to the team’s record.
“Three of these first four have been a top-10 team, a top-15 team, a top-25 team, so we’ve played a gauntlet of out-of-conference guys,” Middle Tennessee coach Brent Stockstill said. “I’d put Marshall up there with anybody that we’ve played this year. That’s a good football team.”
Middle Tennessee fell to Michigan (40-21), Duke (41-18) and Iowa (48-3) while getting a win over Tennessee State to provide its lone non-conference victory. Stockstill said that experience has prepared the Blue Raiders for what they will face in Conference USA.
Middle Tennessee senior safety Jovante Moffatt said that it was especially vital for the younger players joining him and Reed Blankenship in the secondary.
“We can take some experience and just getting guys in who haven’t played a lot going into conference play, definitely with the back end,” Moffatt said. “Looking at different offenses, you can look at that and go from there. We saw a lot of downhill kind of offenses. We can take a lot from it, and we’re ready to go next week.”
All three of those Power 5 programs liked to incorporate the run in their scheme and saw success against the Blue Raiders, who are allowing 254.2 rushing yards per game.
With Marshall (2-2) averaging 206 rushing yards per game, the expectation from Stockstill is that the Herd will look to establish the run.
“They’re averaging over 200 yards rushing a game, so that’s where it starts,” Stockstill said. “Their quarterback [Isaiah Green] is looking to pass first, but he can extend plays with his feet. He can get outside of the pocket and create some things in the run game off of pass plays, so we’ve got to be cognizant of him once he gets out of the pocket.”
Marshall’s rushing attack also will look to get going after what was deemed a sub-par rushing performance in Saturday’s 52-14 loss at Cincinnati. Much of the rushing production against the Bearcats came late with the game in hand. The Herd’s veteran offensive line struggled to produce holes against Cincinnati’s front seven.
Out of Marshall’s 125 yards, 40 came on a reverse to Willie Johnson, and Sheldon Evans gained a bulk of his yardage late in the game. Brenden Knox was limited to 49 yards on 16 carries.
Knox said that one of the things that happened against Cincinnati was the Bearcats’ fast start. They jumped out early using a haymaker on a deep ball and a pair of first-quarter scores to stagger the Herd, which threw the offense into catch-up mode.
“We were behind the score pretty quickly and it kind of caught me by surprise, honestly,” Knox said. “I’m not used to that. We’ve just got to keep playing hard and take everything a snap at a time.”
With conference play now upon both teams, getting off to a fast start — both on Saturday and in C-USA play — is integral for both teams.
Moffatt added that both teams seem to bring out the best in each other when they face off.
“You look at the games, they’ve always been close or one team just came in and got ahead of the other,” Moffatt said. “I told [teammates] just be ready to bring your hats because this is going to be a big conference game for us and them on our side of the conference. We both know what is at stake here.”