— By Bill Cornwell
After two consecutive games in which Marshall squandered fourth-quarter leads and lost, the Thundering Herd hopes to turn things around Saturday when it opens Conference USA play at Middle Tennessee State.
Game time at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium is 7 p.m., at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium, and the contest in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, will be carried nationally by Stadium.
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 MTSU last season 42-14 at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The Blue Raiders (1-3, 0-2) are led by veteran head coach Rick Stockstill, who has a 95-95 record in 16 seasons in Murfreesboro. MTSU lost last week at Charlotte, 42-39.
Here are three things to look for in Saturday’s game:
Finish it out
The most-watched aspect of this week’s game may be how many points Marshall scores and allows in the fourth quarter.
Marshall (2-2) has given up 17 and nine-point leads in losses to East Carolina and at Appalachian State over the last two weeks. The Herd offense has stagnated in the final 15 minutes and gone scoreless in both games.
Better red zone execution would benefit the Herd, especially considering Marshall missed a fourth-quarter field goal attempt in each loss.
“Our players did a really good job with their effort but we’ve got to continue to find out how to close out games,” first-year Herd head coach Charles Huff said. “There’s a lot of positives that we can take from that [Appalachian State] game, a lot of positives we can take from that experience, but also a lot of things that we need to get cleaned up.
“We’ve addressed it, had an opportunity to go back and watch the film, had an opportunity to go back and point out some of the areas that probably cost us an opportunity to be successful.”
Attacking the aggressors
Marshall redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells will be facing a veteran group of defenders Saturday, particularly in Middle Tennessee’s defensive backfield.
Blue Raiders’ defensive backs are the team’s top tacklers. Senior safety Reed Blankenship is the lead tackler for MTSU with 39, including three tackles for loss. Junior safety Greg Grate is second with 31 tackles and a forced fumble.
“Reed Blankenship has been there as long as I have,” Marshall senior center Alex Mollette said. “We were playing against each other in 2017 and I thought he was a senior then.”
The Blue Raiders are ninth in Conference USA in defense, giving up 417 yards per game, numbers that could play into the favor of Marshall’s offense.
Herd freshman tailback Rasheen Ali has 10 total touchdowns, including eight on the ground through four games.
It has been nearly a month since the Blue Raiders have played at home and they’re hoping for strong crowd support on a “Blackout” night.
MTSU’s lone home game was a a 50-15 thrashing of FCS member Monmouth.
Since then, there have been road losses at Virginia Tech (35-14), UTSA (27-13) and Charlotte (42-39).
The Blue Raiders have beaten Marshall three of the four times the Herd has visited Murfreesboro, while dropping five of six games in Huntington.
Stockstill is hoping the crowd provides an advantage for the Blue Raiders.
“We knew that it was going to be close to a month before you played back home again,” Stockstill said. “We love playing at home, love playing in front of our fans, we love being out there. Physically, it takes a little bit off your body — you don’t have to get on a bus, you don’t have to get on a plane, you don’t have to sleep in a different hotel, you know all the different things that go into a road game, so it will be great to be home in front of our fans and we’re excited to play it.”
Next Saturday will be homecoming in Huntington as the Herd hosts Old Dominion at 2 p.m. Homecoming day will feature the dedication of a statue near the Cam Henderson Center honoring Basketball Hall of Famer Hal Greer, a Huntington native who was the first African-American scholarship basketball player at Marshall … Marshall remains high in several national offensive rankings — 16th in scoring offense (40.2 points per game), fourth in total offense (552.5 yards per game) and fifth in passing offense (382.8 yards per game).