Records: Marshall (0-0), Eastern Kentucky (0-0)
Date/Time: Saturday, September 5th, 1:00 PM ET
TV: ESPN (Jason Benetti/Andre Ware/Katie George)
Location: Joan C. Edwards Stadium (Huntington, WV)
Betting Line: N/A at press release
A two-hour drive northeast on Interstate 64 from Richmond, Kentucky will link the Eastern Kentucky Colonels against Doc Holliday’s Marshall Thundering Herd on Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. This will be a return of normalcy in what has been one of the most inconclusive time periods in college football and the outside world we’ve seen in years.
Marshall leads the all-time series with an 11–8–1 record, bringing new life to an old SoCon-Ohio Valley FCS powerhouse rivalry that was predominantly played consistently from 1985–92. Playing in front of a reduced crowd on ESPN for the first of their six scheduled home contests will certainly be an unfamiliar concept for a Marshall football program that hasn’t lost a season opener since the Friends of Coal Bowl in 2012.
The departure of the former starting signal caller Isaiah Green pretty much dominated headlines through the spring and summer, but the newly appointed redshirt freshman QB1 Grant Wells should feel like he can run through a brick wall on Saturday, because the EKU defensive front is surely gonna have to. Returning the second-most experienced offensive line in the FBS behind only Arkansas State (among teams playing this fall), it’s easy to understand why if the passing game can’t pull its weight, Marshall Offensive Line Coach Greg Adkins has a well-groomed bunch up front that’ll help Brenden Knox carry the load.
Based on 2019 statistics, Knox will enter the 2020 season as the sixth-leading rusher in college football, coming off a C-USA MVP season that saw him eclipse 1,300 rushing yards with 11 scores on the ground. Five of the Herd’s top seven receivers return from last season, with leader Armani Levias’ departure leaving a hole quickly plugged by versatile tight end Xavier Gaines, a converted quarterback-receiver hybrid.
Despite taking a significant hit to the depth of the front seven due to graduation, I still feel as if this Marshall defense has a lot of names to watch as this pandemic forces every program to seek the most out of their role players. Brad Lambert & J.C. Price return as co-DC’s for a unit that statistically had the conference’s top two leading tacklers but still ran middle-of-the-road in most team categories in 2019.
Darius Hodge and Koby Cumberlander anchor a defensive line littered with redshirt juniors, with Nagurski watchlist and 1st Team All-CUSA linebacker Tavante Beckett leading an undersized linebacker corps. The strength will truly be in the secondary and their defense of the passing game, as West Virginia transfer Derrek Pitts will pair with Preseason All-CUSA selection Nazeeh Johnson to form possibly the most formidable safety tandem in the conference.
It’s worth noting that redshirt sophomore Talik Keaton is an absolute dynamo and can change games with his work on special teams. Keaton was Conference USA’s top punt returner in 2019 and was the only freshman in the league to be named to C-USA’s first team.
EASTERN KENTUCKY PREVIEW
Eastern Kentucky replaces a first-time head coach with a first-time head coach, as veteran FBS assistant Walt Wells relieves Mark Elder, who in his four seasons at the helm led the Colonels to a subpar 21-24 record. EKU went 7-5 in 2019, yet again failing to make the FCS playoffs, a postseason achievement the program hasn’t reached since 2014. This is Walt Wells’ 8th season overall at EKU in his third stint in Richmond, as he coached tight ends/offensive line from 1997–2002 and returned for one campaign as assistant head coach in 2015.
Parker McKinney & Dakota Allen share the metaphorical leg up in the QB competition with 15 combined career starts, but there’s multiple candidates and the team won’t name a starter until gameday, so it’s presumably gonna have to be run-heavy offense for EKU with running back Alonzo Booth. He finished the season with 673 rushing yards on 140 carries (as the back-up) and scored 14 touchdowns on the ground in 2019, which led the Ohio Valley Conference and ranked 16th in all of the FCS. They return 3 starters on the interior offensive line on a team that led the OVC in rushing yards per game.
The Colonels do return 7 starters on defense, including do-it-all junior defensive back Daulson Fitzpatrick, whose father Rory was a defensive lineman for George Chaump at Marshall in the late 1980’s. The Herd rushing attack could have open lanes depending upon who steps up for EKU’s defensive line. 70% of 2019’s sack production is gone, including all-conference stars Aaron Patrick and Taquan Evans. Linebacker Steven Crowder & cornerback Josh Hayes were the only two Colonel defensive members named Preseason All-Conference, both being awarded 2nd Team All-OVC.
When this game was played most recently in 2018, Marshall pulled off the 32–16 victory at home. Just a mere 89 of the Herd’s 367 total yards of offense were accrued on the ground as Willie Johnson led the team in rushing that day off just two jet sweeps. That being said, to say I expect the dead opposite on Saturday would be a dull and dreary understatement, as the game plan for both teams could be to run the ball into oblivion. Naming a starter with no previous in-game reps or not naming one at all until gameday is essentially the same thing, but luckily both teams have enough veteran leadership and versatile playmakers on both sides of the ball to make this a competitive affair, even in an untimely debut.
The deal-breaker in my eyes rests on Brenden Knox barreling downfield behind his hogs up front, and just how much punch EKU can pack to stop it. The Colonels haven’t notched a win against an FBS opponent since beating Miami (OH) in Week 2 of 2014, so if Marshall finds any sort of groove with pace and time of possession the tempo could start to sway in their favor fairly quickly.
Final Score: Marshall 28–10 Eastern Kentucky