High expectations for Herd in C-USA

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The Marshall University football program opens the conference portion of its schedule against two teams the Thundering Herd have never met in Texas-San Antonio and Florida Atlantic.

Marshall is anticipating a strong showing in Conference USA after being picked to finish No. 2 preseason in the East Division behind favorite East Carolina.

What follows is a breakdown of the Thundering Herd’s eight league opponents.

Oct. 5, 2 p.m.

vs. Texas-San Antonio

Larry Coker, who won a national title with Miami (Fla.) in 2001, is a familiar name in the coaching circles. Asked to build a program from scratch beginning in 2009, Coker guided UTSA to a 4-6 finish as a FCS independent in 2011.

Last year, UTSA won its final three games of the season for an 8-4 showing. The Roadrunners become a full-fledged FBS program and will be bowl eligible in 2014.

Of the 20 starters returning, 10 are on offense and eight are on defense. Both kickers also are back.

UTSA’s top offensive stars are Eric Soza, and running backs David Glasco and Evans Okotcha. Despite missing two games with an injury, Soza passed for 2,085 yards and 20 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Glasco rushed for 537 yards and five TDs, while Okotcha added 430 yards and eight TDs on the ground.

Scott Inskeep will anchor an offensive line which brings back four of five starters.

The Roadrunners will show the opposition a 4-2-5 alignment. Linebacker Steven Kurfehs recorded 4.5 sacks, while defensive back Tristan Wade ranked second on the team in tackles and picked off four passes.

Oct. 12, 5 p.m.

at Florida Atlantic

Formerly a member of the Sun Belt Conference, the Owls from Florida Atlantic finished 3-9 in 2012.

Entering his second season as coach at FAU, Carl Pelini spent three seasons as an assistant to Frank Solich at Ohio from 2005-07.

Howard Schnellenberger, who won a national title with Miami (Fla.,) in 1983, coached the first 11 seasons for FAU before Pelini arrived.

Wide receiver William Dukes is the Owls’ top playmaker and was named the team’s Offensive Most Valuable Player after hauling in 63 passes for 979 yards last year.

On the ground, FAU will rely on Jonathan Wallace, who carried the ball 175 times for 673 yards and six TDs a year ago.

Melvin German, who is a junior college transfer from Pearl River Community College (Fort Myers, Fla.), is the incumbent to replace Graham Wilbent (2,819 yards, 18 TDs) at quarterback.

Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m.

at Middle Tennessee State

The Herd’s second conference road game will take them to Murfreesboro, Tenn., for the first time. Marshall has never lost to Middle Tennessee State in two previous meetings (1992 and 1994) played in Huntington.

The Blue Raiders are coached by Rick Stockstill, who owns the distinction of being a two-time Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year. They are coming off an 8-4 finish, which ranked as the nation’s biggest win improvement after going 2-10 the previous year.

MTSU returns a host of starters – 17 to be exact. Of the nine returning starters on offense, quarterback Logan Kilgore is seeking a third straight 2,000-yard passing season. Last season, he threw for 2,571 yards and 16 TDs. Running back Jordan Parker set a school record for freshman after rushing for 851 yards.

Defensively, strong safety Kevin Byard is gaining all sorts of notoriety after recording four interceptions as a freshman. MTSU also possesses one of the more dangerous kick returners in Reggie Whatley.

Nov. 2, 12:30 p.m.

vs. Southern Miss

Following an 0-12 finish in 2012, Southern Miss brought in a breath of fresh air by hiring former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken as its new head coach. The Golden Eagle seniors will be playing for their third different head coach in four years.

Since playing each other every year beginning in 2005, Southern Miss leads the series 5-3. However, the Herd have won the past two meetings.

With five different players starting at quarterback for the Golden Eagles last season, Cole Weeks has emerged as the top choice this year.

The offensive line consists of five sophomores, but on the opposite side of the ball nine starters return on defense.

Nov. 9, noon

Alabama-Birmingham

Marshall usually doesn’t experience too much trouble with UAB after winning six of the eight meetings in the series. The Herd take a 4-0 home record against the Blazers into Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

Head coach Garrick McGee and the Blazers lost seven of their first eight games before finishing 3-9 last season.

UAB’s most prized possession is running back Darrin Reaves, who rushed for 1,037 yards and 13 TDs last season. Of the other eight starters returning on offense, quarterback Austin Brown threw for 2,673 yards and 15 TDs, while Jackie Williams caught 52 passes for 799 yards.

A total of eight members are back on the defensive side of the ball, including safeties Calvin Jones and Jake Ganus, along with cornerback LaMarcus Farmer.

UAB must replace their top two tacklers from a year ago, including linebacker Marvin Burdette who agreed to a three-year undrafted free agent deal with the Washington Redskins. As a senior with the Blazers, Burdette produced 157 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and two sacks.

Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m.

at Tulsa

The Golden Hurricane are not rated high on Marshall’s list of favorite teams to play since the Herd are 0-4 in the all-time series.

The prospects of snapping the drought don’t appear too bright since Tulsa returns five players who were named to the preseason All-Conference USA first team. The list includes offensive linemen Jake Alexander and Stetson Burnett, linebacker Shawn Jackson, defensive back Marco Nelson and punt returner Trey Watts.

In addition to finishing 7-1 in C-USA, Tulsa completed its 11-3 campaign by defeating Iowa State 31-17 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Head coach Bill Blankenship is 19-8 since arriving at Tulsa three years ago and was recognized as C-USA Coach of the Year in 2012.

Nov. 23, TBA

at Florida International

FIU begins its affiliation with C-USA after spending eight seasons as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

Former Illinois and San Jose State head coach Ron Turner takes over the program. His most prolific season occurred in 2001 when the Illini won the Big Ten Conference championship and Turner was recognized as the league’s Coach of the Year. He spent last year as the quarterbacks coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Panthers’ defense will rely heavily on tackle Greg Hickman, who ranks in the school’s top 10 for career tackles for loss. He has started 23 games during the past three seasons.

Marshall also will try to put the clamps on kickoff/punt returner Richard Leonard and cornerback Sam Miller, who finished fourth on the team in tackles a year ago.

The only meeting between the Panthers and Herd occurred in 2011 when Marshall won 20-10 at the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Nov. 29, noon

vs. East Carolina

East Carolina and Marshall have played a few barnburners in years past. Of their 14 meetings, three games have been decided in overtime – including last year’s 65-59 double-overtime win by East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. which closed out five consecutive league wins by the Pirates.

East Carolina returns eight starters on offense and eight on defense from a unit which finished 8-5 and defeated Louisiana-Lafayette 43-34 at the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

One of Marshall’s nemesis returns with wide receiver Justin Hardy, who hauled in a school-record 16 receptions against the Herd and finished the season with 1,105 yards receiving and 11 TDs.

ECU also returns offensive weapons in quarterback Shane Carden (3,116 yards passing with 23 TDs) and running back Vintavious Cooper (1,049 yards rushing with seven TDs). Cooper was recognized as C-USA’s Newcomer of the Year.

Anchoring the defense is linebacker Jeremy Grove, who led the team in tackles for the second straight year.

The Pirates are coached by ECU alum Ruffin McNeil, who is 19-19 in three seasons at the school.