Tuesday, September 4, 2012

     Fresh off the annual Coal Bowl defeat at the hands of the Mountaineers, the Marshall football team returns to action Saturday against the Western Carolina Catamounts, an FCS opponent with a long-dormant rivalry with the Herd dating back to Marshall's days in the Southern Conference. Looking back at last weekends performance and forward to the showdown with the Catamounts, several things stick out.

1. What is wrong with the Defense?
     69 points. The Thundering Herd defense gave up 69 points to the Mountaineers, a number that is simply unacceptable. True, West Virginia has an overpowered offense that features a Heisman-hopeful quarterback surrounded by talented receivers and linemen led by a coach who isn't afraid to air it out. It is also true that this is the same offense that put up 70 points against the Clemson Tigers in last year's Orange Bowl. But it was more the manner in which the Herd gave up so many points that needs to be addressed. The secondary played coverage softer than a kitten's coat.

     Defensive Coordinator Chris Rippon will surely have his unit practicing tackles after it seemed like the Mountaineers broke at least two every play. By this point in his time with the Herd, we know Rippon will never willingly use zones closer to the line of scrimmage or, dare I say, man coverage. It almost goes without saying that the Catamounts are not the Mountaineers. Regardless, the Marshall defense must get their act together going forward.

2. No pass rush
     None whatsoever. Sure, the Herd sent blitzes occasionally, but they were a non-factor in the game. I don't think many Herd fans truly understood how much graduation had cost the defensive side of the ball until they watched Geno Smith sit comfortably in the pocket for what seemed like ages drive after drive. Not only was there no double-team demanding end like Vinny Curry, but there weren't enough big bodies to collapse the pocket, formerly the jobs of Delvin Johnson and Brandon Bullock. Jeremiah Taylor and Brandon Sparrow have the physical tools to be difference makers, but the on the field product has yet to come together for them. Once again, the opposition cannot be ignored and WVU had a very strong offensive front. But there were plays where Geno Smith could have literally sat on the field to tie his shoe, gotten back up and thrown to a wide open Stedman Bailey. Marshall needs to figure out how to disrupt the quarterback, maybe blitz more, maybe blitz corners, do something.

3. Return of Eddie Sullivan.
     For many fans the Western Carolina Catamounts might as well be known as the Fighting Eddie Sullivans. Sullivan was a short lived sensation at Marshall, making a push for the starting position in the spring before falling down the depth chart in the fall. Sullivan was suspended from the Fight Eddie Sullivans first game and his backup, freshman Troy Miller, guided the team to a 42-14 win over Mars Hill, completing over 69 percent of his passes and earning conference freshman of the week honors. Marshall fans would be disappointed not to see Sullivan playing at the Joan again. ""No bad blood towards Eddie," Marshall defensive end Jeremiah Taylor said Monday, "but when he comes in here we're going to rough em' up."

4. Rakeem Cato unleashed.
     At the beginning of the 2011 season, Rakeem Cato was a scrawny kid fresh out of high school playing in front of 60,000 very hostile fans in the season opener against West Virginia. He kept his composure however, completing 15 of 21 passes for 115 yards with no touchdowns or turnovers. This season, Cato looked like an old-school Marshall gunslinger, staring down blue and yellow blitzes and throwing for 413 yards and two scores. Cato completed 38 passes to 13 different receivers, including 6 for 60 yards and a touchdown to sophomore Tight End Eric Frohnapfel. The 413 yards were the most for a Marshall quarterback since Bernie Morris in 2007, and the 38 completions were the most since Byron Leftwich in the classic double-overtime Miracle in Mobile in 2001. The point is, Cato is legit. He has shown that he can put up numbers and lead the offense and should have a much easier time against the Fighting Eddie Sullivans in front of the home crowd. I admit, I didn't believe in Rakeem Cato when it was announced he would start as a true freshman. I wanted the taller, faster, more exciting A.J. Graham to start, and he got his chances when Cato had a rough start. But now Cato is worthy of the at least some trust from the fans.

 (Yes, yellow. WVU wears blue and yellow uniforms, not blue and gold. Georgia Tech wears gold, Central Florida wears gold. WVU wears yellow. I don't care what they say.)

5. Put Up or Shut Up.
     The Herd is coming off two 7-6 seasons and expectations are growing. Doc Holliday constantly adds talent through recruiting and transfers and fans are expecting a real step forward this season. Most fans acknowledged early on that West Virginia would probably beat the Herd, and accordingly picked the visit from the Fighting Eddie Sullivans as the Herds first W of the season. Part of being a good team is winning the games that you are supposed to. Marshall is supposed to win this game. When looking at the bright spots in the otherwise dismal performance against WVU, Marshall should win this game in convincing fashion as long as the proper adjustments are made (and perhaps re-teaching tackling to the defense.)

                                                                                                                     You've Been Thunderstruck

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