HUNTINGTON — When Marshall meets Virginia Military Institute at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, it will mark the first time in 23 years that the two former Southern Conference rivals have met on the field.
Prior to Saturday’s contest, the last game between the two took place in Lexington, Virginia, with the Thundering Herd earning a 45-20 win over the Keydets in their final meeting as Southern Conference foes.
Marshall assistant coaches Brad Lambert and Greg Adkins are well-versed in those Southern Conference battles with VMI, having been assistants for the Herd in the early 1990s when the team had to go through the Keydets to maintain its dominance in the SoCon en route to being one of the top Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) teams.
While Marshall has dominated the series overall, it may have been a game against VMI that signaled the turnaround for the Marshall program.
In 1983, Marshall put all the pieces together in a 56-7 win over VMI in the season finale, which proved to be the final game as Herd coach for the late Sonny Randle.
Marshall finished 4-7 overall that season but 3-4 in the Southern Conference, and rode that momentum into 1984 when Stan Parrish took the Herd to its first winning record since 1964. From there, Marshall would not have another losing season until 2005.
Fast forward to 2019 and the teams are polar opposites, with Marshall being one of the favorites in Conference USA and of the upper echelon among Group of Five programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Meanwhile, VMI has won just one game in the last two seasons and has just six wins in four seasons under head coach Scott Wachenheim.
Just as VMI may have signaled the turnaround of Marshall’s program, Marshall may have also indirectly signaled the downfall of VMI’s program.
On Nov. 6, 1982, Marshall traveled to Lexington, Virginia, to take on VMI and the expectation was that the Keydets would get the home win, having never lost to the Herd. However, Marshall pulled out its first-ever win over VMI — a 22-20 victory — which put one of the final stamps on a 5-6 season that started what has now grown into a 37-season streak of non-winning seasons (there were a pair of 6-6 campaigns in 2002 and 2003).
VMI’s last winning season was 1981, which was also the last year it beat Marshall, a 20-16 win in Huntington.
Since that time, Marshall has won all 14 meetings between the teams, a streak that is not expected to end on Saturday.
Despite Marshall being an FBS conference favorite and the Keydets looking for their first win over an opponent at their equivalent level since beating East Tennessee State on Oct. 8, 2016, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said that no opponent can go overlooked — especially when attempting to open a season on a good footing.
Holliday added that VMI’s offensive scheme is one that his team has to be ready for. The Keydets use tempo and throw the ball around offensively. Quarterback Reece Udinski threw for 3,082 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2018, but also threw 16 interceptions.
“VMI is going to play extremely hard,” Holliday said. “It always does. Offensively, they play extremely fast and like to throw the ball, which is something that sets them apart from other military programs. We’ll have a challenge with a lot of people lined up in the secondary for us. They’ll play fast and throw it all over the place and I’m eager to see how our guys respond.”
Marshall offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said that VMI’s offensive tempo forces the Herd’s defense to be somewhat similar to the offense — eliciting confusion from the opposition by using a three-man front and bringing pressure from all areas with looks that don’t always mesh with the expected.
It is, in essence, chaos on both sides of the ball.
“I think that’s what their mentality of the offense is, so they do some stuff on defense where it might not be sound, but it’s annoying,” Cramsey said. “Our rules within our plays handle that type of stuff and it falls on the quarterback.”
Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green is heading into his second year as a starter and Cramsey said that Green’s offseason has warranted trust, which will give him more freedom for checks at the line of scrimmage, based on what he’s seeing. Green is part of an offense that returns nine starters and features a talented group of running backs led by Brenden Knox and Tyler King. Considering that VMI allowed 265 yards per game rushing in 2018, both players could see big games in the backfield.
The 20th meeting between the schools brings a bit of nostalgia and history to it with the former Southern Conference rivalry. VMI won the first five meetings before Marshall rattled off 14 straight. And, in the last season the teams met, Marshall finished off its I-AA days with a special season that featured Randy Moss, a national championship and a 14-0 record.