— By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall will try to continue its strong history against Old Dominion when the two Conference USA clubs meet Saturday at S.B. Ballard Stadium in Norfolk, Va.
Marshall (3-2, 1-1) has a 3-1 all-time series advantage over ODU and beat the Monarchs last year in Huntington 35-3. Both teams have won a game in Norfolk, with the Monarchs crushing the Herd 38-14 two years ago at Ballard Stadium.
Game time is at 3:30 p.m. and the contest is being televised nationally on Stadium.
Both teams are coming off conference losses. Marshall fell at home to Middle Tennessee last Friday night 34-24, while the Monarchs were 52-33 losers at Florida Atlantic.
Old Dominion comes into the game with a 1-5 record and 0-3 in C-USA, but Marshall coach Doc Holliday says the record is deceiving.
“If you look at them on film, they don’t look like a 1-5 team,” Holliday said. “They are a dangerous team and we have to do a great job going in there prepared to play this week.
“I know our team is anxious to go down there and play well and I know we will.”
ODU’s lone win is an impressive one, a 49-35 upset of then-No. 10 Virginia Tech.
Monarchs’ coach Bobby Wilder’s decision to play junior Bobby LaRussa was key in the win over the Hokies and the team’s offense has clicked ever since.
“(LaRussa) threw for almost 500 yards against Virginia Tech and has thrown for over 1,100 yards in the last three games,” Holliday said. “They have two big-time receivers (Jonathan Duhart and Travis Fulgham) that are just as good as anybody in our league and they do a good job of getting the ball to them.”
Duhart and Fulgham are coming off solid games in the FAU loss. Duhart caught eight passes for 100 yards, while Fulgham had a career-high 10 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown.
The Monarchs’ running game is also improving, as junior Kesean Strong set career highs against FAU with 21 carries and 99 yards on the way to three rushing touchdowns and a scoring reception.
Although the Herd has lost twice and enters this one off its first setback in league play. Wilder isn’t expecting Marshall to look much different than what he’s seen from them before.
“They’re consistently a very good program and have been since we joined C-USA.” Wilder said. “Offensively they are going for 380 yards a game, 26 points. They throw the ball extremely well and defensively they’ve got the number two rush defense in the league.
“A couple of outstanding linebackers and they’re very dangerous in the return game on special teams.”
Wilder is concerned about dealing with Marshall’s strong run defense.
“They have an outstanding front seven and they scheme to get the eighth guy in the box, whether they bring the safety from the weak or strong side or they’ll insert the corner based on formation,” Wilder said. “They’re outstanding with their line movements, but the number one reason is their two inside linebackers (Frankie Hernandez and Chase Hancock) are aggressive and play downhill.”
A big challenge for Marshall’s offensive lineman will be slowing down Old Dominion pass-rushing ace senior defensive Oshane Ximines, who leads Conference USA with 7.5 sacks so far this season.
Holliday says it will be important for Marshall to run the ball and slow Ximines.
“The run game helps,” Holliday said. “At some point, you’re going to have to get him blocked, but a lot of people have struggled with that including Virginia Tech and FAU, so our guys are going to have to do a great job and get him blocked at some point.”
Holliday’s big concern is eliminating turnovers, as Marshall has committed 14 in the last four games after having none in the season-opening win at Miami (Ohio).
“We have to take care of the ball and that’s number one in everything we do,” Holliday said. “We also have to create more turnovers on defense and take care of the ball when we have it, because when you turn the ball over, that is magnified because you give the other team another possession.”
Marshall’s success this week largely depends on improvement from junior transfer quarterback Alex Thomson, who threw for 173 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in his first start last week in the MTSU loss. Thomson replaced injured Herd signal caller Isaiah Green.
“I thought I saw him get more comfortable throughout the (Middle Tennessee) game,” Holliday said. “I don’t think there is any question that getting a game under his belt might help and I thought he got better throughout the game and he will be better this week.”
Wilder hopes the usual boisterous crowd at tiny Foreman Field (capacity 20,118) will give his struggling club a boost as it spends four of the final six games of the season in the Tidewater area.
“It just feels like we’ve been on the road all year,” Wilder said. “We played very well at home so I’m excited about that.
“We’re frustrated right now to be 1-5, especially when that one win is over a nationally-ranked Virginia Tech team. We know our record should be better at this point, so we’re going to turn the page start the second half of the season with a goal to have an outstanding second half of the season.”