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Devon Key _original

Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green (17) beats Western Kentucky defender Devon Key (2) to the end zone during the 2019 meeting between the teams.

HUNTINGTON — Film study of Western Kentucky has been a constant for Marshall’s football team over the last two weeks as the team has had extended time to prepare for the Hilltoppers.

As Marshall’s offense has looked over the Western Kentucky defense, there have been several points emphasized.

However, there is one aspect that stands out on the back end of the Hilltoppers’ defense. Fittingly, this particular defensive back may be the key to the game — Western Kentucky safety Devon Key.

Key is a safety who plays almost like a linebacker, flying up in the box in run support and causing havoc for the opposition in its blocking scheme.

Marshall’s coaching staff is well aware of Key, even joking that it seems like he’s been there longer than some of the coaches involved in the game have been.

“Their safety — No. 2, Key — I think he’s one of the better players,” Marshall offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said. “I thought he was old when I got here three years ago and he’s still playing for them.”

Marshall head coach Doc Holliday echoed Cramsey’s thoughts.

“He seems like he’s been there forever,” Holliday said. “We’ve lined up against this guy for a number of years. They are going to go in trying to stop the run like everyone else and they’ve got to get those safeties involved. He’s the guy that has been involved. We have to know where he is because they are going to drop him into the box to try to get that extra hat.”

For Cramsey and the Thundering Herd offense, reading Key truly will be key for offensive success.

When Key is up in the box taking on more of a run presence, that means there will be additional one-on-one scenarios on the outside for Marshall’s wide receivers to make plays.

“When we talk, we always talk about getting a seventh guy in the box, but these guys want to get an eighth guy in the box with those safeties,” Cramsey said. “We’re going to have to be good on the outside and win some one-on-one battles on the outside and switch them up formation-wise to keep them guessing.”

Marshall’s ability to get its passing game going early behind redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells is vital in loosening up the Western Kentucky defense.

“Their safeties really want to get in the box and really want to make plays in the run game,” Cramsey said. “It puts their corners on an island. Don’t get me wrong, their corners are good players, but it puts them on an island sometimes.”

If Marshall is able to complete passes in those one-on-one battles, it forces the Hilltoppers to decide whether to continue bringing their safeties forward against the run or to help in the pass game. Should Key be forced into coverage help due to passing success for the Herd, Marshall’s rushing attack should be able to benefit behind an offensive line that has shown its strength in the first two games of the season, rushing for 498 yards in two wins.

Last season, Key had eight tackles against the Herd and Western Kentucky was one of the few teams to limit Marshall running back Brenden Knox to less than 100 rushing yards in conference play. It was part of a solid defensive effort for the Hilltoppers, who limited Marshall to just two field goals in the second half after the Herd jumped out to an early 17-0 lead.

Can the Herd key in on Key’s play and use it to its advantage, or can Key help lock up Marshall’s offense in its first conference game?

That answer could be the key to victory in this rivalry battle.

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or derek.redd@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.