It was a season to remember last year for Marshall football after claiming its first Conference USA Championship and another bowl win following a 52-23 beat down of Northern Illinois in Boca Raton. This after Marshall narrowly missed an undefeated season after a 67-66 loss to Western Kentucky in the final game of the regular season.
While the Herd has had its share of memorable games throughout its history, none could be more important to the program than the game with Purdue September 6 at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying this will be the most important game ever in the history of the Thundering Herd program, but with another weak schedule increasing the importance of a win versus a Power 5 opponent, Marshall must defeat Purdue if it has any chance of impressing the College Football Playoff committee or making the New Year's Six Access bowl.
Yes, Marshall must win because unfortunately a loss to the Boilermakers will not be viewed as a good one-- it would actually destroy Marshall's hopes of the Access bowl all together. But fear not Thundering Herd faithful, Marshall has a great shot of avenging the 51-41 loss in 2012, and two words explain why.
While the Herd makes the transition from Rakeem Cato to Michael Birdsong at the helm, Doc Holliday has the luxury of Johnson carrying the team from the tailback position - much like he did last year while racking up nearly 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Johnson presents a world of trouble for a Boilermaker defense that allowed seven 100+yard rushing performances last season, including 205 yards for Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. Simply put, Purdue struggled against the run last season- they surrendered 27 rushing touchdowns while allowing opponents to convert 46 percent of third downs.
Purdue also finds itself missing several key players on defense as free safety Landon Feichter and defensive linemen Ryan Russell and Jalani Phillips have graduated. Feichter led the team with five interceptions and 105 tackles last season, while Russell and Phillips combined for 12 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Defensive holes are not the only problem for the Boilermakers, as they lost their leading rusher and receiver in Akeem Hunt. The senior rushed for 949 yards and six touchdowns, plus a team-leading 48 receptions for 293 yards and two scores. Purdue also lost starting kick returner Raheem Mostert who also rushed for over 500 yards with three scores on the ground.
One bright spot for the Boilermakers is that junior quarterback Austin Appleby returns all five starting offensive linemen in from of him, which could prove to be a much needed foundation while trying to right the ship from a 1-11 season in 2013 and a 3-9 campaign last year.
Marshall also has its own issues with Cato and center Chris Jasperse highlighting a long list of Herd stars that have since moved on after helping rebuild the program into a conference powerhouse. However, the Herd has something returning this season that it hasn't been able to use in the past - experienced young players.
With the likes of Angelo Jean-Louis, Deon-Tay McManus, Ryan Yurachek and Hyleck Foster returning from significant playing time last season, Marshall's offensive has the pieces Birdsong needs to keep the potent air attack soaring.
Although this is the P5 game that Marshall desperately needed on its schedule last season, there is no "good loss" parting gift waiting in the wings should it stub it toe out of the gate. Many think the Herd's most important game comes the day after Thanksgiving when it travels to Bowling Green in hopes of avenging the loss from last year to WKU.
However, if Marshall is anything except 11-0 entering its final game of the season with the Hilltoppers, the team with the weakest schedule in college football can only hope for a conference championship before making another trip back to Florida for a bowl game in late December while sitting at home watching football on New Year's Day.