Heading into Saturday’s match-up between Marshall and Ohio at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, senior quarterback Rakeem Cato is trying to add one thing that has eluded him the past three seasons to his already impressive resume—a win over the Bobcats.
Headed into the 14th meeting of the “Battle for the Bell”, Ohio is in search of its fourth consecutive win over Marshall in a series the Herd leads 9-4.
“There's no doubt that it has been a big rivalry for a lot of years and they've won the last three,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. “Our kids understand that. Ohio has been the better team the last three years, as far as playing together as a team. We have to make sure, for us to have a chance on Saturday, that we are one heck of a football team in all three phases of the game. If we can do that, then we have a shot.”
Ohio head coach Frank Solich agreed with Holliday’s take on the history and rivalry of the game.
"They've been hard fought ball games, they've been games that, early on, we weren't able to find a way to win,” explained Solich. “I think the last so many years we've been able to find a way to win the game, but they've all been tremendously competitive football games for the most part. It's a rarity to not have it be a competitive game and it doesn't seem to matter where that game is played. We've played them once in a bowl game, we've played them at their place and here at our place, and those games are generally all extremely competitive football games. I think that is also something that leads to the rivalry in terms of the players, fans, and everybody getting excited about it. That's what this game is all about.
Ohio dominated Marshall in 2011 with a 44-7 beat down in Athens in a game that Cato was picked four times. Marshall’s defense was befuddled by Ohio’s offense led by Tyler Tettleton as the Bobcats held the ball for over 36 minutes while totally 559 yards of total offense and converting third down 8-of-16 tries. It was the worst lost to Ohio since a 48-8 drubbing in Athens during the 1968 season.
Ohio visited Huntington in 2012 and found itself trailing 14-0 after one quarter. However, Tettleton calming orchestrated another Bobcat comeback with two touchdown passes in the second quarter bookending an Ohio field goal and a 17-14 Bobcats lead at the half.
Both team’s defenses played under a “bend but don’t break” mentality in the second half waiting on the other to make a mistake. Once again, a Herd turnover led to another Bobcat win as Jelani Woseley intercepted a fourth quarter Cato pass with 20 seconds remaining. Marshall lost 27-24.
However, 2013 was supposed to be the year the Herd finally got over the Bobcats hump but once again turnovers plagued Marshall and eventually led to a 34-31 defeat. Marshall committed four turnovers, three fumbles and a Cato interception, to zero from the Bobcats. Tettleton once again calmly marched his team up-and-down the field while converting 11-of-19 third down opportunities forcing the Herd’s defense into a repeat performance of 2011.
Although Solich is missing many of his offensive play makers, he likes what his defense has been able to do with Cato over the past three years.
"I think we've been pretty sound in what we've done against them,” Solich said. “I think this is probably their best team that we've faced and maybe in our [entire] time here, as far as this staff is concerned. So this will be maybe an even bigger challenge than what it's been. Obviously, we can't let them have the big plays and if you can force them into not getting explosive plays and having to stay on the field, and earn everything they get, then you're doing all that you can. I think our football team is capable of being that kind of a defensive football team but we've shown signs of, every now and then, giving up those explosive plays. You just can't let that happen with any kind of consistency and think you'll play well enough to win the game."
Coming into the “Battle for the Bell’s” final visit to Huntington until 2019, there is one thing that Marshall must do in order to beat Ohio, take care of the football.
Over the past three contests Marshall has committed 13 turnovers to Ohio’s three. Entering Saturday’s contest both teams have fumbled six times with Marshall recovering two to Ohio’s one. Holliday said Marshall has to take care of the ball to have a chance to beat Ohio.
“You constantly work in your individual drills,” explained Holliday. “Ohio had the same issue against Kent State. They turned the ball over four times and came back the following week and only turned it over, I believe, once against Kentucky. They got it fixed and we have to get it fixed. You will not beat a good football team if you give them the football that many times.”
While Marshall returns several players from last season, only three have ever beaten Ohio—James Rouse, Darryl Roberts and Demetrius Evans. On the other hand for Ohio, while it returns a veteran defensive staff led by linebacker Jovan Johnson, there is no Tettleton, no Beau Blankenship and no Donte Foster. This year Ohio will be led by quarterback Darius Vick, or perhaps quarterback J.D. Sprague or running back Daz Patterson. While there remains uncertainty of what to expect from the Bobcats, Holliday said at least game film exists from this season.
“The positive to that is we now have film,” Holliday said. “We have two games with a sample of both of them. Vick played the Kent State game and Sprague played the majority of the Kentucky game. So we at least have them both on film. The one thing that hasn't happened is Ohio doesn't look like they have changed their philosophy a lot with either quarterback. They both have similar skill sets. They both can run and make all of their throws. I don't think they're going to change what they do. They will try and do what each of them does best. But we at least have a sample of both of them, which is something we haven't had this season.”
Ohio’s offense has been like a science experiment gone bad. Through two games this season, the Bobcats totaled 660 yards of offense. Marshall had 724 yards last week with 432 yards coming on the ground.
Vick led the Bobcats to a 17-14 win over Kent State in week one, but was benched in the first half last week at Kentucky after all six of his passes missed the intended mark. Solich turned to Sprague who went 13-for-25 in his Bobcat debut but could not will his team to a comeback as the Bobcats fell 20-3 to UK.
Thus far for Ohio, it has only scored two touchdowns—both coming against Kent State—and is averaging 330 yards of offense.
Marshall must contain the dual-threat of Vick while trying to stop Ohio’s double-stack receiver set that has haunted the Herd over the years. Luckily the Herd saw a similar look last week against Rhode Island and cornerback Corey Tindal did a great job of taking away the quick slants, a play that Tettleton used to lull the Herd to sleep with before finding a target deep down field.
So much like Marshall’s first two games this season, it’s another week of uncertainty for the Herd.
Marshall cannot have another performance like Miami this season where the defense cannot get off the field on third down. Luckily for the Herd, the Bobcats have struggled mightily (11-of-28) on third down this season. If Marshall can force Ohio into third-and-long situations, this number could rise significantly. More importantly for the Herd, it must get off the field on third down.
As for Marshall, if it can duplicate the running attack that UK pulled off last weekend in Lexington, Ohio will have to load the box thus leaving single coverage on the Herd’s receivers. UK carried the ball 52 times, gaining 232 yards (4.5 yards per carry). Much like the Herd, UK has a dual-look rushing attack that resembles a Marshall Devon Johnson, Remi Watson and Stew Butler combination that results in a one-two punch from the backfield, but Holliday said the Herd must keep the attack simple and take what is given.
“We have to continue to take what that defense gives us, whether it be the run or the pass,” Holliday said. “We just need to continue not trying to put round pegs in square holes and execute our offense. If they give us the run, we'll run it and if they give us the opportunity to throw it, we'll throw it. We'll take what they give us, do our job, and execute our offense.”
In a contest that pits two teams that always brings out the best and worst in one another, this year the Herd must find a way to bring out the worst in the Bobcats. Marshall needs to start like it did in 2012 when it had a two touchdown lead after the first quarter but must finish of the Bobcats if given the chance.
“With these guys (Ohio), you better play a complete game and take care of the football,” said Holliday. “You better come ready to play or they'll beat you. That's just the kind of team they are.”
Should this game be decided by who wins the turnover battle, Marshall must take care of the ball to pick up its 10th win in the “Battle for the Bell.” However, should the Herd fail to take care of business early, it could be another chapter of the “Ohio beats Marshall again” book, only with a different writer than the past three seasons.