By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON – Marshall is set to kickoff the 2020 season Saturday afternoon against Eastern Kentucky in what will undoubtedly be a season unlike any other for everyone involved in the Marshall football program.
The Herd and Colonels are meeting for the 20th time, with Marshall leading the series 11-8-1. The schools met regularly during the 1980s and 1990s as they both regularly contended for NCAA Division 1-AA titles. The Colonels won national titles in 1979 and 1982, while Marshall took the crown in 1992 and 1996.
The two teams last meeting was in Huntington in 2018, a 32-16 Marshall win. The Colonels are 4-7-1 all-time in Huntington.
The game is the debut for Eastern’s new head coach, Walt Wells, who spent the last year on the University of Kentucky staff.
Here is what to watch for Saturday afternoon:
Can the “kid” handle the pressure?
Saturday’s game is the first start for Marshall redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells from Charleston. Wells won the job following the departure of two-year starter, Isaiah Green. Head Coach Doc Holliday and Offensive Coordinator Tim Cramsey have been pleased with Wells’ work in fall practices, especially his ability to throw on the run and make good decisions. Those attributes will be tested by an EKU defense that will no doubt throw extra rush pressure at Wells, especially by senior defensive end Elijah Taylor and junior defensive tackle Shane Burks. Wells ability to keep a cool head in his debut could set the stage for an interesting MU season
Stopping Brenden Knox
Marshall’s junior tailback Brenden Knox isn’t hiding from anyone. He’s the Conference USA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year after racking up 1,387 yards on the ground and 11 touchdowns in 2019. He’ll be marked man for Eastern Kentucky’s defenders, but Knox can utilize his usual bullish run style, it could be a long afternoon for the Colonels. Critical in keeping Knox fresh and healthy this year will be the performance of backup junior running back Sheldon Evans, who was actually named an offensive captain for Saturday’s game. Evans might be the “lightning” side of Marshall’s “Thunder and Lightning” backfield combo, picking up 375 yards and a touchdown last season in light duty.
Pressure on MU’s defense
Marshall’s defense lost some major contributors last year with the graduations of linebackers Omari Cobb and Tyler Brown, linemen Channing Hames and Marquis Couch and defensive back Chris Jackson. Lots of players who got limited game time last year are now in the spotlight as Herd fans will see plenty of talents such as defensive end Darius Hodge, tackles Rodney Croom and Jamare Edwards and linebackers Tavante Beckett and Eli Neal. Marshall’s defensive back should be a strength with returnees that include cornerbacks Steven Gilmore and Jaylon McClain-Sapp and safeties Nazeeh Johnson and Derrek Pitts. The Herd defenders will get a test on Saturday as they must stop EKU’s strong tailback, 250-pound junior Alonzo Booth, who ran for 673 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019.
Notes: Eastern Kentucky Walt Wells says that the naming of a starting quarterback will be a game-time decision. Returning starter Dakota Allen, Kaymen Cureton and Parker McKinney are all listed as potential starting signal callers……College Football officials are dealing with many precautions as the game proceeds during the Covid-19 pandemic. Among adjustments include the use of electronic whistles, the wearing of a black facemask, weekly Covid-19 tests and virtual pregame meetings. There are changes on the sidelines as well as the team bench area will be expanded to each 15-yard line, an increase of 10 yards on each side of the 50 yard line in order to allow safe spacing for players and coaches. The numbers of individuals involved in a pregame coin toss have also been cut to one from each team.