College football’s opening weekend continues on Sunday with Marshall looking to score a non-conference victory and respect for Conference USA in a matchup against Purdue. The Boilermakers rank near the bottom of most preseason power polls in the Big Ten, but coach Darrell Hazell heads into his third season in West Lafayette with optimism thanks to 16 returning starters.
Marshall was one of the top Group of 5 programs last season but a late-season loss to WKU ended any hopes of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. The Thundering Herd is among the favorites to win Conference USA once again this season, but prolific four-year starter Rakeem Cato must be replaced at quarterback. While Cato will be missed, Marshall is still a touchdown favorite for Sunday’s contest.
On the other sideline, it’s critical for Purdue to take a step forward in 2015. Hazell’s team increased its win total from one in 2013 to three last season. The Boilermakers still have several question marks to answer, but there’s a young core to build around and hope to push for five or six wins this season.
Purdue and Marshall have met only one previous time. The Boilermakers defeated the Thundering Herd 51-41 in 2012.
Purdue at Marshall
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
Spread: Marshall -7
Three Things to Watch
1. New Marshall QB Michael Birdsong
Rakeem Cato leaves big shoes to fill in Huntington. In four years as the starter for the Thundering Herd, Cato threw for 14,079 yards and 131 scores. James Madison transfer Michael Birdsong won the job in the spring, and the junior should keep the offense on track. As a freshman with James Madison in 2013, Birdsong threw for 2,728 yards and 22 scores. With a solid offensive line, one of the top Group of 5 running backs in Devon Johnson leading the way on the ground, and a talented receiving corps at his disposal, Birdsong won’t have to carry the offense on his own. However, this won’t be easy matchup. The Boilermakers return two starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten candidate Frankie Williams. Birdsong’s first start with the Thundering Herd should be a good barometer test and provide the coaching staff with an idea of where this offense is after losing Cato.
2. Offensive Improvement at Purdue?
Purdue’s offense has struggled to get on track under Hazell, ranking near the bottom of the league in scoring offense in back-to-back seasons. With nine starters back, how much improvement will this unit show in 2015? Austin Appleby has settled into the starting role and is supported by a veteran offensive line and promising young running backs in Markell Jones and D.J. Knox. Marshall’s defense was vulnerable against the run last season (53rd nationally) and the pass rush is a concern. Will all of the experienced pieces start to come together for Purdue?
3. Stopping Marshall RB Devon Johnson
Johnson’s path to a place among the nation’s best running backs has been an interesting one. After two years as a tight end, Johnson was converted to running back and finished 2014 with 1,767 yards and 17 scores. The most impressive part of Johnson’s 2014 campaign has to be his 8.6 yards per carry, which was the best in the nation among running backs with at least 200 carries. Purdue struggled to stop the run last season, allowing 192.1 yards per game. Additionally, starting end Gelen Robinson is suspended. With Marshall breaking in a new quarterback, Johnson should be slated for a heavy workload to take the pressure off of the new signal-caller. Can Purdue keep Johnson in check?
There’s no question Cato will be missed, and the passing attack will be a work in progress until Birdsong gets a few starts under his belt. However, the Thundering Herd offense can lean on Johnson, and the defense should make just enough plays to pull out a close win. Purdue is improving, and an upset here wouldn’t be a surprise. But the Boilermakers also have question marks on both sides of the ball as well, and the homefield advantage swings this one slightly in favor of Marshall.