The Line: Marshall by 21 ½
Returning Home for the Record
39. Every major storyline about this weekend's game between the #25 Marshall Thundering Herd and the FIU Panthers. With one touchdown pass, Rakeem Cato will move into sole possession of the NCAA record of consecutive games with a touchdown at 39. The native of the Liberty City section of Miami tied the record in front of a homecoming crowd in Huntington and will have a chance to break it in his own personal homecoming. Cato is one of many Herd players returning to their hometown in this C-USA contest, including wide receivers Tommy Shuler and Craig Wilkins and safety AJ Leggett. Beyond the mini-homecoming for much of the Herd, this is the third matchup between FIU and Marshall, and the second straight in Miami. The storyline that might fly under the radar is this matchup between C-USA's top 2 scoring and total defenses, with Marshall ranking 1st in scoring defense and FIU ranking 1st in total defense. Marshall leads the conference in every offensive statistic except passing yardage per game, where they are second, but the FIU defense could be their toughest test of the year.
Panthers to Watch
Denzel Perine and Michael Wakefield - The two Panther defensive ends each have 5.5-6 sacks on the season, depending on which statistics you examine. Perine and Wakefield are the reason that FIU is tied for the conference lead in sacks, at 21. The 1-2 attack on each end of the line will attempt to put pressure on Rakeem Cato and try to make him force passes or throw before he would like to. Even if they don't get their sack numbers, the pressure by the FIU defense has led to 8 interceptions, good for second in C-USA. Clint Van Horn and Trevor Mendelson will have their hands full containing these two off the edge.
Jonnu Smith - The 6'3", 230 lb. sophomore is not your traditional, big blocking tight end. However, Smith is the Panther's leading receiver in both yardage and receptions, and has already surpassed his yardage total from his freshman year and could surpass his receptions total this weekend with 6 receptions. Smith has big play ability, with a 75-yard touchdown reception against UAB earlier this season. Smith presents a matchup problem with much of the Herd secondary and could have a big day against the Herd's linebacking corps if FIU can attack the Marshall corners and safeties.
Richard Leonard - The simple fact is that if Leonard intercepts a pass, the Panthers have won the game. Leonard is tied for the conference lead with 4 interceptions, with 2 of them returned for a touchdown. In his press conference, Doc Holliday specifically mentioned Leonard's capabilities, stating "He is a punt returner, kick returner, and corner that is as good as any player in the country. When you look at his stats and he has returned a fumble for touchdowns and interceptions. Not only can he play man coverage extremely well, but he is great with a ball in his hands." With the weapons Marshall has, Leonard will likely be asked to cover Tommy Shuler. While this might favor the Herd with their number of weapons, if FIU can pressure Cato and force him to make decisions early, Shuler is his go-to, and everyone in C-USA knows it. If Cato tries to force one to Shuler, Leonard can make him pay.
Marshall Players to Watch
Rakeem Cato - In his record-tying performance this past weekend, Cato threw for over 335 yards, but completed just over 50% of his passes. If he repeats his completion percentage this weekend, this ball-hawking FIU secondary will have a field day with him. He must rely on his offensive line to give him and time and read his progressions. Marshall has weapons all over the field with Shuler, Wilkins, Frohnapfel, and the recently-emerging Deon-tay McManus. If Cato can find the holes in coverage and not force anything, he can have success against this FIU defense that has not seen an offense the caliber of Marshall's. Cato cannot let the moment of breaking an NCAA record in his hometown overwhelm him, but you would not expect it to do so with a senior leader and captain.
Devon Johnson - I'll echo my sentiments from last week's MTSU preview, until someone in C-USA can stop him, I doubt Marshall will stop giving the ball to number 47. Johnson went over 100 yards in a game for the fifth time this season against the Blue Raiders. Going into this past weekend, the weakest spot on this FIU defense was the linebacking corps. Tuesday, David Neal of the Miami Herald reported that FIU's second leading tackler and the only linebacker to start every game for the Panthers, Anthony Wint, was on crutches with an ice pack on his left knee after leaving the UTSA game in the 3rd quarter last Saturday and could be out for the year. If the Panthers are without Wint, getting to the second level could be even easier for Johnson.
Eric Frohnapfel - The Marshall tight end could be one of the most under-utilized players in the nation. Frohnapfel is a matchup nightmare in the middle of the field at 6'7". Against a team with such a strong defense, the tight end can be a quarterback's best friend in both the receiving game and while blocking. FIU does a great job bringing extra blitzers and forcing bad passes, so keeping Frohnapfel in can give Cato an extra half-second for a receiver to come open downfield. If a blitz is not picked up or all his outside receivers are covered well, a jump ball to 6'7" receiver traditionally favors the offense. In both aspects of the offensive game, the Marshall tight end could prove a valuable asset for the Herd.
In the 3rd meeting between these two teams, expect a similar game to the previous two. In the 2011 Beef O'Brady's Bowl, the Herd and the Panthers were tied until a 4th quarter field goal and a late touchdown gave the Herd a 10-point lead. In last year's game in Miami, the Herd led 20-3 at the half, before blowing the game open to a 48-10 final. FIU may very well be one of the most improved teams in C-USA this year. This is not the same FIU team of last year, or even the same FIU team that lost to Bethune-Cookman in week 1. This defense has shown their capabilities throughout this season on their way to numerous top 3 rankings in the conference in many defensive categories. However, this team has not played an offense the caliber of Marshall. While the newly-ranked Herd may not have faced a defense as good as the Panthers', FIU has not shown they have the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with Marshall and their highly-ranked defense. A close game for 3 quarters is opened up late as the talent differential is just too much for the Panthers.
Marshall 45 - FIU 24