— By Bill Cornwell
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — After two consecutive games in which fourth-quarter meltdowns led to losses, Marshall (2-2) hopes to turn things around Saturday night as it opens Conference USA play at Middle Tennessee State.
Kickoff at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium is 7 p.m., and the contest will be shown by Stadium.
Marshall held a 30-21 lead going into the fourth quarter last Thursday at Appalachian State, before falling 31-30. That came five days after the Herd surrendered a 38-21 lead in the final period at home against East Carolina and lost 42-38.
The poor finishes have forced first-year Marshall head coach Charles Huff and his staff to work on self improvement in an effort to more late game breakdowns. Cutting down on penalties and turnovers is a point of emphasis.
“We are focusing on the things that we need to do consistently to get the results we want,” Huff said. “We’re not focused on we want to win this game or that game, or we want to win this amount of games. We’re focused on what we need to do to get the results we want and the process that it takes to be successful.”
Huff says the Herd’s problems are more mental than physical.
“I know what physically tired looks like — guys with hands on hips, guys taking a knee, guys cramping, guys with just no energy,” Huff said. “The last two games, we’ve been emotionally tired. When you play in these types of games, there are highs and lows. When you have those highs and lows, you have to be able to control your emotional conditioning, as well as physical conditioning.
Middle Tennessee (1-3, 0-2) is guided by veteran head coach Rick Stockstill, who has a 95-95 record in 16 seasons in Murfreesboro.
MTSU enters off a 42-39 loss at Charlotte last Friday. The Blue Raiders won their opener over Monmouth, but have lost to Virginia Tech, UTSA and the 49ers since.
After giving up 678 passing yards in the ECU and Appalachian State losses, Marshall’s defense is getting plenty of attention from the coaching staff prior to the C-USA opener. The Herd will face Blue Raiders’ junior quarterback Chase Cunningham, who threw for 379 yards and five touchdowns in his first start last week against Charlotte.
Cunningham replaced Bailey Hockman as the starter at quarterback. Hockman threw for 463 yards with four touchdowns over the first three weeks before opting to give up football.
Cunningham enters with eight touchdown passes, no interceptions and a completion percentage just north of 67.
“He’s done a really good job — he’s scrappy, he’s creative, he’s tough,” Huff said. “With their system, he distributes the ball well, gets the ball out quick, is athletic enough to create [when a play breaks down]. His receivers and tight ends do a good job when things break down of still staying alive, which creates some scramble opportunities.
“He’s done a phenomenal job managing the game and he plays with passion and energy.”
Marshall has its own breakout offensive star this season in redshirt freshman running back Rasheen Ali.
Ali has 376 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 63 carries in four games. His performance last week in last week’s loss included 83 rushing yards and a rushing score, along with a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown.
Ali also has 73 receiving yards and a TD through the air, giving him 10 total scores.
“He runs with power, he’s a strong back, but he’s also got great speed, got great change of direction and has great vision as a running back,” Stockstill said. “He breaks tackles, so we’ve got to do a great job from that standpoint, but he’s just a really good back.
“He does a good job catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s just a complete back. He can run with power, he can run with sped, he’s got some elusiveness to him and they don’t have to take him out of the game in third down situations.”
Marshall and the Blue Raiders have played 10 previous times, with the Herd holding a 6-4 series lead.
The teams have split eight meetings as Conference USA members. Marshall defeated the Blue Raiders last season 42-14 at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on the 50th anniversary of the Marshall football plane crash.