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Marshall: Five Burning Questions

Patrick Sparks answers five questions about the Marshall as they get ready to take on Middle Tennessee for first place in the eastern division of Conference USA.

Devon Johnson is a load for anyone to bring down.
Devon Johnson is a load for anyone to bring down.
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

1. With Western Kentucky, Old Dominion, and next year Charlotte - Who do Marshall fans consider their main rival in Conference USA? Where does Middle Tennessee rank?

P.S.) When it comes rivals, Marshall fans definitely miss ECU. While they were always great games, the bond of the crash brought them together. Now though, Marshall fans consider the number one C-USA rival to be Old Dominion already. It may only be one game old, but Marshall fans will never turn down a chance to prove West Virginia is the best Virginia. After them, might be MTSU. Last year's game still kinda fresh in their minds and the way the Herd lost it has people circling this game on the calendar. I think the rivalry will build as both teams work to remain at the top of C-USA East.

2. Marshall is crushing everyone this year. Do you think there is a worry from fans that they might get complacent and slip up in a game? Does the loss to MTSU last year serve as extra motivation this week?

P.S.) There is always a bit of a worry among MU fans that the team might become complacent. I think this coaching staff and the senior leadership on this team has worked to prevent that from happening, but there is always a lingering worry. I don't know if the team is using last year's game as motivation as much as the fans are using it.

However, Marshall has three return games of games they lost last year. The first of the year was against Ohio, who snuck by Marshall last year. If Marshall's victory over Ohio earlier over this year is any indication, the Herd are not taking any of these "return bouts" lightly.

3. MTSU and Rice were both able to rush for over 200 yards against Marshall last year and they both won. Is it safe to say that shutting down the Blue Raiders' rushing offense will be a key to the game?

P.S.) If there is a weak spot on the Marshall defense, it's the run defense. Even against pass-heavy Old Dominion last week, the Herd gave up over 200 yards on the ground last week. Marshall's problem seems to be somewhat schematic with their 4-2-5 look. Teams who have had success on the ground against Marshall place 3-4 receivers outside, setting Marshall with 6 men in the box. Linebackers, especially last week, played more spy coverage and allowed O linemen to engage with them 5 yards downfield instead of at the point of attack.

For Marshall, the key is stopping the run, which they haven't been tremendously tested by this year. Even against teams that prefer to run more, the Herd D has gotten 2-3 early stops and allow their offense to go down the field and score, which has led to opponents having to pass more in game.

4. Marshall has made the jump from good to great. What has been the difference this year? How has Rakeem Cato progressed since last season?

P.S.) If I had to point at the things that have taken Marshall from good to great, they are an improved run game and the change in defensive coordinator. If you look back at Marshall over Rakeem Cato's four years, they have gotten better and better because the improvement in their running game. Bill Legg has always used a running back by committee at Marshall, but now he finally has two featured backs instead of four. Teams that used to sit back and wait for Cato to have to force a pass, now have to play up and respect the run.

This has allowed Rakeem Cato to check off at the line to whatever matches up better. While his stats probably won't reach the level of his sophomore season, he now has more maturity and better control of the offense. On the other side, Chuck Heater has vastly improved a formerly abysmal Herd defense. Honestly, a jar of mayonnaise would be a better defensive coordinator than Chris Rippon, but Heater has come in and changed the mentality from "wait and see what they do" to "force them to make the play".

5. Marshall is one of the top rushing teams in the country. What makes them so successful? Who are the guys to watch on the offensive line?

P.S.) Marshall's rushing attack has been a pleasant surprise to many Marshall fans. Devon Johnson showed his capabilities as a tight end and fullback in last year's ECU game, but no one anticipated him being the conference's leading rusher as the featured back in this offense last year. Any running back that is 6'1", 240 is a problem for a defense, particularly some of the undersized defenses Marshall has faced so far this year.

I think MTSU is the best defense Marshall will have faced, but Johnson still appears to just be a nightmare for linebackers. On the offensive line, the main guy to watch is center Chris Jasperse. Many of the runs, particularly with Johnson are right up the gut with Jasperse leading the way. The entire offensive line is big and athletic, but Jasperse keys it all.