Marshall fans have been waiting for this game since last year's instant classic in Murfreesboro where the Herd lost on the last play of the game. During the return Homecoming tilt, it seems the Herd football team did not forget about the sting of last year either. Marshall hit the field with a sense of anger and aggression that few have really seen out of the Herd this year. However, this led to Marshall playing a very sloppy first half full of mistakes and some uncharacteristic mistakes. Whatever adjustments were made at the half seemed to work, as the Herd stretched an 11-point halftime lead to a 25-point final differential.
The Herd defense came out with the mentality to stop the run, which allowed Austin Grammer to move the Blue Raiders down the field with some big pass plays early, leading to a 14-7 game after the first quarter, and a 28-17 score at the half. The biggest thing the Blue Raider offense did was to use the running backs out of the backfield, creating a running back-linebacker mismatch on deeper routes or running back-safety matchups in the short passing game. The other move used by Middle Tennessee to expand the passing game was use of crossing routes and pick plays to allow for yards after the catch. When Chuck Heater switched coverage from man coverage with safety high zone to a tighter, man coverage in the second half, the Herd had more success in shutting down MTSU.
On the offensive side of the ball, Devon Johnson showed up and got his numbers (19 carries, 134 yards, 3 TDs, 7.1 ypc), but the story from the day is Rakeem Cato. Cato finished the day 17-33 with 337 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 interception. With his touchdown connection to Craig Wilkins, Cato tied Russell Wilson for the NCAA record for consecutive games with a passing touchdown at 38 games. While Cato seemed to not be in a rhythm with his receivers on a consistent basis, he completed passes to 7 different receivers on the day. 589 yards of total offense against MTSU led to an eventual whitewash.
Penalties continued to plague the Herd, as they have throughout the season. Some penalties came from a confused officiating crew, who called a tremendous amount of personal foul facemasks against both teams. Some were just boneheaded plays and extracurricular activity, which even plagued Rakeem Cato. What the Herd has done this season with their penalty problems this year makes one wonder what they might be capable of if they were more disciplined.
For MTSU, an early run-pass balance and some pressure from the defensive line gave them a chance early. Austin Grammer had success drawing up linebackers on a play-action QB dive pass to the slot receiver, but was never able to sustain success on the ground. Much of Grammer's success through the air came in the short game and allowing his receivers to build up their yards after catch.
The MTSU defense was able to pressure Marshall early, but as the game went on, the pace and skill of Marshall's offense took took an obvious toll on the Blue Raider D. The real difference in the game came with the 2nd half adjustments, where MTSU did not adjust to what Marshall changed.
Player of the Game
Rakeem Cato. It is hard not to pick an NCAA record-tying quarterback who passes for over 330 yards and 3 touchdowns and adds a touchdown on the ground. Despite mistakes in the form of poorly thrown passes, turnovers, or an inexplicable and inexcusable taunting penalty after being sacked, Cato seemed in control of the game throughout the game, particularly in the 2nd half.
When It Was "Over"
While the score was somewhat lopsided at 42-17, there was a slight feeling that MTSU could go down field and keep close enough to be uncomfortable for the Herd's Homecoming crowd. On MTSU's final drive of the 3rd quarter, Austin Grammer rolled out to the right and looked downfield for a pass to keep the drive alive. As the Herd pressure arrived, Grammer threw across his body to the middle of the field. The ball sailed right into the waiting arms of Marshall's AJ Leggett, who returned the ball to the Middle Tennessee 14. The interception led to another Marshall touchdown, putting the game out of reach at 49-17.
Where We Go From Here
Marshall became bowl eligible and moved to 2-0 in Conference USA, good for sole possession of 1st place in C-USA East after UTSA's win over FIU. After losses from top 25 teams such as Georgia Tech, Marshall looks to move into the top 25 for the first time since Bob Pruett roamed the sidelines.
Next week, Marshall heads to Miami to take on Florida International. The main storyline will obviously be Rakeem Cato returning home to Miami with a chance to break the tie with Russell Wilson for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. The other thing to look for is if Marshall can continue their dominance, as one of only 2 teams to score more than 40 points in every game this season? A win over FIU after defeating MTSU would put Marshall on the fast track to the C-USA East title.