Ohio contest pivotal for Herd
Editor's note: this is the third part of a 12-week series looking at the opponents for the 2013 Marshall Thundering Herd football team.
HUNTINGTON -- A Marshall Thundering Herd football fan doesn't need to look far for reasons to make the trip to Ohio University's Peden Stadium on Sept. 14.
Yes, it's the first Marshall road game of the season and only 90 minutes to two hours from Huntington.
Yes, it's a contest against a longtime rival.
And yes, it will be a revenge game, considering the Bobcats came to Huntington and earned a 24-21 comeback win over the Herd in 2012 after embarrassing Marshall, 44-7, in Athens in 2011.
But, the past has little to do with the importance of this game. It is the present and the future that will be dictated when Marshall travels to Athens that day.
Barring a disaster in the opening two games, the Herd should be undefeated heading into the matchup with the Bobcats. Miami (Ohio) is a team that is down and lost six of seven to end the 2012 season (lone win over then-No. 23 Ohio) and Gardner-Webb is an sub-par FCS opponent.
That paves the way for Marshall to have lots of confidence heading to Athens.
In that scenario, a win in Athens would put the Herd at 3-0 to start the year for the first time since the 13-0 season in 1999, which was also the last time Marshall had three non-conference wins in a season.
More importantly, a win would also give the Herd lots of momentum heading into a tough road contest at Virginia Tech to end the non-conference portion of the season.
Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick made it a point to reconfigure Marshall's out-of-conference schedule to set the team up for success, and 2013 is the first year the Herd has really been in the driver's seat.
The Herd has not finished with a winning record in non-conference play since the 2003 season.
An opportunity to change that should be present with the Herd's first road contest of the year at Ohio, but getting a win against the Bobcats will be no easy task.
Ohio returns eight offensive players to the mix in 2013, including a pair of offensive names that have made Marshall fans miserable over the last two years -- quarterback Tyler Tettleton and running back Beau Blankenship.
Despite battling an abdominal injury, Tettleton was cerebral with the football in 2012, throwing for 2,844 yards and 18 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He also rushed for 455 yards and four scores.
Blankenship was a stalwart at running back, logging 312 carries for 1,604 yards with 15 touchdowns.
On the outside, leading wide receiver Donte Foster returns after catching 59 passes for 659 yards. Chase Cochran and Matt Waters will also be prominent in the passing attack.
Many people were surprised when Ohio coach Frank Solich switched from his traditional I-formation offense, which led him to success at Nebraska. The new Spread scheme under Solich has been effective based on two things: a powerful offensive line and efficiency in taking care of the football.
For Ohio, maintaining its offensive line strength will be critical for continued success in 2013. With so many skills guys back, the offense -- which averaged nearly 32 points a game last year -- should be the strength of the team.
However, the team does need to replace two key cogs that opened holes for Blankenship in the running game -- center Skyler Allen and guard Eric Herman.
Tackles John Prior, who starred at Portsmouth High School, and Ryan McGrath return along with left guard Jon Lechner, who also could see time at tackle. The X-factor for the O-line will be the emergence (or potential lack thereof) of center Lucas Powell, who will step into Allen's role.
With eight starters back on the offensive side, the Bobcats will be in plenty of games, but the question is on defense where there are several glaring holes to be filled, especially at linebacker.
With Solich's scheme, the balanced, methodical attack is what works the best for his team. Unlike Marshall, Ohio's Spread offensive alignment still focuses on controlling tempo and winning time of possession.
As defensive players went down because of injuries last year, the Bobcats got in many other shoot-out style contests in the middle of the year that resulted in close wins over MAC doormats Massachusetts and Akron.
Later, the defensive attrition hampered the team and resulted in three consecutive losses in November to Bowling Green, Ball State and Kent State.
The defensive front will look much different with four of the leading six tacklers from the front having exited the program. Returning are nose guard Antwan Crutcher and defensive end Ty Branz, but depth and playmaking ability will once again be an issue from a unit that was far from exceptional last season.
Junior college defensive linemen Watson Tautuiaki and Cameron McLeod need to have an impact sooner than later.
Middle linebackers Keith Moore and Ben Russell return, but the losses of strongside linebacker Alphonso Lewis and weakside backer Jelani Woseley will be hard to overcome.
Either Moore or Russell could move into one of the vacant positions while strongside linebacker A.J. Grady will also have to step into the fold quickly. Nathan Carpenter has also proven to be a productive nickelback, but there is always the chance he could move into the mix as well.
One place the Bobcats are solid is in the defensive secondary where injuries in 2012 led to opportunities for young players to perform. Now, Ohio has many highly-skilled secondary members, led by returning strong safety Josh Kristoff.
In addition to Carpenter at nickel, cornerbacks Larenzo Fisher, Devin Bass and Ian Wells return while the Bobcats also get corners Travis Carrie and Jamil Shaw back after each missed virtually all of 2012 because of injuries.
Special teams has always been a focal point of Solich and the Bobcats are a bit uncertain in the game's third phase.
Kicker Matt Weller, who was better sending daggers from distance than short range, has graduated and punter Grant Venham was ineffective, averaging less than 40 yards per punt.
Ohio leads the all-time series with Marshall 31-19-6. The Bobcats have won the last two meetings after Marshall had taken 12 of the previous 14 meetings dating back to 1985.
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