Marshall-Southern Miss. Preview
Marshall continues to maintain some perspective during its best start in 15 seasons.
The No. 23 Thundering Herd can improve to 9-0 with a fourth straight victory over Southern Mississippi in a Conference USA road matchup Saturday night.
Marshall's players could have spent their recent bye week basking in the glow of the program's best start since opening 13-0 in 1999 or looking ahead to a possible spot in a bowl game chosen by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
Instead, coach Doc Holliday's team worked to better itself through practice, film work and conditioning before enjoying last Saturday off.
"We've got a long way to go and a lot of football left to be played," Holliday said. "We just have to go out and get better as a football team. We've done that to this point. We can't change."
There's no rest for a team that ranks second in the FBS with 571.3 total yards per game and third with an average of 45.9 points.
Led by senior quarterback Rakeem Cato and junior running back Devon Johnson, the Herd (8-0, 4-0) are happy to put in the work, especially after trailing by two points at halftime of a 35-16 home victory over Florida Atlantic on Oct. 25.
"A great football team at some point during the year is going to have some adversity and is going to have to find a way to win a football game," said Holliday, whose team has trailed for 21:39 minutes this season. "That's what happened to us (against FAU). I thought they responded extremely well in the second half."
Johnson rushed for 272 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries to break the school's single-game record of 262 set by Ron Darby in 1988.
After playing tight end, linebacker and fullback his first two years, Johnson enters this week ranked seventh in the FBS in rushing yards (1,203), third in average yards (150.4) and tied for third in yards per carry (8.8).
"I knew he was a really good football player, but for me to say we're going to move him to tailback and get the production that we've gotten out of him, I didn't think that," Holliday said of Johnson, who through eight games is the fastest Marshall player to reach 1,000 yards.
"He's physical. He's a tremendous football player and I'm glad he's on our side. I sure as heck wouldn't want to have to tackle that guy every day."
Though Southern Miss (3-6, 1-4) ranks near the bottom of Conference USA by allowing an average of 191.2 rushing yards, it's held the last three opponents to 245 on the ground.
Even if the Golden Eagles manage to contain Johnson, they could again have their hands full with Cato, who has completed 70.5 percent of his passes for 877 yards with 11 TDs and three interceptions during the Herd's three-game series winning streak. He threw five of those touchdowns during last season's 61-13 home rout.
Cato, who extended his FBS record for consecutive games with a TD pass to 40 with one against FAU, needs five attempts and nine completions to break Chad Pennington's school records in those categories. Pennington was 1,026 of 1,619 in his four seasons.
"The biggest challenge in facing a guy like that is he is a very confident player; just the way he carries himself," Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said. "He has a belief in himself, which is a start. I think the guys feed off of that."
Second-to-last in the league with an average of 19.7 points, Southern Miss looks to avoid a third straight defeat after falling 35-14 at UTEP last Saturday.
If Mullins can't go, Cole Weeks is likely to make a second straight start.
Weeks has thrown for 647 yards with two TDs and two INTs in the last two games. He had an interception taken back 51 yards for a touchdown by UTEP and lost a fumble that the Miners recovered and returned for a score.
Allowing a league-low 16.5 points per contest, Marshall has forced 11 turnovers in its last three meetings with Southern Miss.