HUNTINGTON — Marshall sophomore Eli Neal is a name that few heard of before Saturday.
With Marshall signing several graduate transfer and junior college players in its 2020 recruiting class, linebackers whose names were thrown out included Brian Cavicante, Abraham Beauplan and Charlie Gray.
During Saturday’s 59-0 win over Eastern Kentucky, however, it was Neal who matched a team-high with eight tackles in his first career start to help lead the Thundering Herd defense in its shutout.
For Neal, it was a chance to make a statement, and he took advantage.
“It was no secret,” Neal said. “Everybody reads articles. Everybody said that we were the question mark on defense coming back. I wasn’t too worried about it because I had guys like Omari Cobb in front of me that I was able to sit down and watch. When I did come in, I got to come in when the tone was already set.”
Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said that Neal’s ability to grow into a role behind Cobb last year was valuable as he made the transition to starting middle linebacker this season.
“There’s no question that him playing as a freshman has helped him,” Holliday said.
Neal said it was just about making the mental change from maintaining the tone that was set by Cobb and other linebackers to being the guy who sets the tone for the defense now.
“That was the only change coming into this year,” Neal said. “I tried not to put too much on myself — just know that coming in, we’ve got to set the tone and get it rolling.”
Neal and the Herd defense set that tone almost immediately Saturday, shutting down the Colonels’ rushing attack, which was led by 250-pound back Alonzo Booth. Eastern Kentucky had just 19 yards rushing on 18 attempts in the first half as the Herd raced out to a 38-0 lead before halftime.
Neal teamed with veteran linebacker Tavante Beckett for one of the Herd’s more crucial stops that turned away any Eastern Kentucky momentum.
Marshall led 14-0, but Eastern Kentucky had gotten a big pass play to move near scoring territory. However, Neal and Beckett stopped Booth for a 4-yard loss before Beckett’s fourth-down sack turned the ball back to the Herd. Neal was most effective against the run, but also showed in the second quarter that he could react against the pass as well.
On a third-and-6 play, EKU quarterback Parker McKinney found receiver Matt Wilcox over the middle, but Neal read the play and reversed direction to get the stop on Wilcox 2 yards shy of a first down.
The play showed recognition and athleticism, each of which Neal brings to the Herd’s second level. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker from Memphis, Tennessee, said the live repetitions each day against Marshall’s offense in practice really slowed down Saturday’s game for the defense, which helped the Herd players recognize EKU’s looks and enabled them to react quickly.
As that defense got closer to game day, the anticipation grew because the unit knew it was ready to perform.
“The temperature’s been rising, just waiting on the season to start,” Neal said. “We just made sure we pushed each other on both sides of the ball.”
That preparation paid off with a performance in which Marshall’s defense limited Eastern Kentucky to just 166 yards of total offense and 47 plays and, more importantly, zero points. Neal was especially proud of that.
“This is college football and Division I football at that,” Neal said. “It’s hard to shut somebody out, especially in today’s world with today’s offense.”
Given the difficulty, a shutout was never brought up in preparations for Eastern Kentucky, but that didn’t mean Neal and his teammates didn’t think about that as an end result of playing to their potential.
“I’m not going to lie, I don’t think we ever talked about a shutout, but that’s definitely a goal that everyone had — just to play a perfect game,” Neal said.
Neal said that while it was a strong performance, there is still plenty to work on as Marshall gets back to work Wednesday in preparation for its Sept. 19 contest against Appalachian State.
“Even though we did have a great game on Saturday, we’ve still got small things to fix coming up for the following week,” Neal said.
The Herd’s newest starting linebacker said there is no backing down during the early off week.
“We are going full steam ahead,” Neal said.