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Marshall - Middle Tennessee Preview: Battle of Balance

The Thundering Word previews arguably the biggest game in C-USA East this year, this Saturday's tilt between the Marshall Thundering Herd and the only Conference USA team to beat them during the regular season last year, MTSU. A win for the Herd puts them one step closer to their goal of a perfect season and a January 1 bowl berth. A Blue Raider victory puts them squarely in the C-USA East driver's seat.

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The Line: Marshall by 21.5

Holliday's Revenge: Episode 2

When the final whistle blew, the two teams had combined for over 1,000 yards of offense. Both teams had at least one 100-yard rusher and had moved the ball with ease. Unfortunately for Marshall, the running of Essray Taliaferro had moved the Herd down the field too quickly and gave MTSU too much time. MTSU marched the ball down the field and Logan Kilgore connected with a Tavarres Jefferson for a last-second touchdown to defeat the Herd 51-49 in an instant classic. This year, the Blue Raiders come to Huntington for a return match against the Herd where Marshall looks to avenge last year's loss. Marshall comes into this game at 5-0 overall, 1-0 in C-USA, after defeating Old Dominion 56-14 this past Saturday and is beating teams by over 30 points per game. Middle Tennessee comes into this game at 4-2, 3-0 in C-USA, coming off consecutive conference victories over Old Dominion and Southern Miss. Undoubtedly, this matchup between C-USA's two most balanced offenses will go a long way in determining the East division champion.

Blue Raiders to Watch

Austin Grammer - MTSU's sophomore signal caller has already surpassed 1500 yards passing through the first six games of the Blue Raiders season with 7 touchdowns as opposed to 4 interceptions, though 3 of his 4 interceptions came in MTSU's loss to Minnesota. Grammer leads the conference in completion percentage, completing more than 71% of his passes. Grammer also has the ability to run the ball running for a career-high 125 yards in the Blue Raiders triple overtime victory over Western Kentucky. His abilities in both the passing and running game will require the Marshall defense to keep their assignments throughout the game.

Leighton Gasque - The Blue Raiders' leading sack man has produced 4 sacks and 7 tackles from the linebacker position. Tyrone Nix's defense is built from the linebacking corps out, and the entire linebacking corps must show some versatility in both the running and passing game. Nix has no problem running delays and stunt blitzes with his linebackers, and Gasque's sack total shows that.  Gasque must show his ability to cover receivers in space in this game, likely matched up with Marshall receivers, such as Tommy Shuler and Eric Frohnapfel.

The Middle Tennessee Offensive Line - Though the Blue Raiders have a balanced offense in both the passing and rushing game, a majority of Middle's success, particularly in the red zone, comes on the ground. MTSU has rushed for 224.7 yards per game, good for second in the conference, and leads the conference in rushing touchdowns, with 20. The road graders for Middle Tennessee helped MTSU rush for over 300 yards in their game against Marshall last year, and have helped 4 different players rush for over 200 yards on the season through 6 games. With Marshall showing some holes in the defensive front 7, look for MTSU to try to take advantage of the numbers game in the box.

Thundering Herd Players to Watch

Rakeem Cato - Marshall's dark horse Heisman hopeful is on the verge of history. With a touchdown pass this weekend, Cato will tie Russell Wilson's record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 38. Cato is coming off a less than stellar performance at Old Dominion (18-23, 198 yds, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs), and would love nothing more than to redeem himself on the potential record-setting day in front of a large Homecoming crowd in Huntington. Middle Tennessee's pass defense is a feast-or-famine group, with 8 interceptions on the year, but giving up an average of 460 yards through the air in 3 conference games, so Cato must make the right decisions. If he does though, he could have a HUGE day this Saturday.

Devon Johnson - Until someone in the conference stops him, don't expect Marshall to keep it out of his hands. After his near 200 yard performance against Old Dominion, Johnson moved into first place in the conference in rushing yards. The combination of power, acceleration, and patience has allowed Johnson to make the seamless transition from tight end to halfback and has prevented teams from sitting back and waiting for Marshall to pass the ball. Marshall's hurry-up tempo with the bruising running style of Johnson could test the depth of the Blue Raider defense as the game goes along.

Marshall's Linebackers - The entire Herd linebacking corps must play their assignment and be sure tacklers throughout the game. Chuck Heater dialed up the pressure repeatedly against Taylor Heinicke and made him uncomfortable in the pocket throughout the Herd's game against Old Dominion. Grammer presents more challenges in the running game than Heinicke, so look for Marshall to change their strategy. Heater allowed his linebackers to sit back as spies last week. However, this allowed the Monarch o-line to engage and the linebackers in the second level and led to Marshall getting gashed for 200 yards on the ground. For Marshall to have success, the linebackers have to stay in their lanes, get to the ball, and force Middle to make decisions early in the running game.

Prediction

In their first "payback" game of the year, Marshall took an Ohio team that upset them in 2013 to the woodshed in Huntington. In their second game against a team that defeated them last year, the balance of the running and passing games for both of these teams could lead to offensive fireworks early and often. The winner of this game will likely be the defense that can step up and make the plays in crucial situations. The Marshall defense stepped up and silenced the potent Old Dominion offense last week, but has been very inconsistent in their defense of the run through their first 5 games. On the other side, when Middle Tennessee has faced teams that have an average to above average passing attack this year, they have been good for at least 1 interception a game, but has also given up a good deal of yardage through the air. I expect both teams to be able to move the ball, but the combination of athletes on the Marshall sideline, the momentum the Herd is carrying into this game, and the Homecoming crowd at Joan C. Edwards Stadium gives Marshall the edge. Marshall wins, but does not cover.

Marshall 42 - MTSU 31