Herd hopes to begin a memorable November at USM

Shannon Stowers, Assistant Sports Editor

Fresh off a bye week in which it reenergized and regrouped, the Thundering Herd football team will begin the home stretch of its schedule Saturday when it travels to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to face the University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles.

The 3-6 (1-4) Golden Eagles are in a rebuilding phase after going 1-23 over the last two seasons. Before its decline, the USM program was once one of the top schools in Conference USA. In 2011, the Golden Eagles went 12-2.

After taking over last season, head coach Todd Monken has improved USM’s win total in consecutive seasons.

Part of the Golden Eagles’ success begins with an experienced defense led by a defensive front seven including four of the team’s top seven tacklers.

On the defensive line, Rakeem Nunez- Roches is a player Marshall University head coach Doc Holliday said will give the Herd a challenge in Hattiesburg.

“We haven’t played a more talented guy than what [Nunez-Roches] is,” Holliday said. “Probably as a group, this is the most talented group [we’ve played].”

Joining Nunez-Roches are leading tacklers safety Jacorious Cotton and linebacker Brian Anderson.

Holliday said the Golden Eagles defense will try to get to quarterback Rakeem Cato multiple ways, including dropping back in coverage and letting the defensive line do the work, or bringing extra men on blitzes.

“They’ll try to get pressure with four down [linemen] and they’ll also bring pressure,” Holliday said. “I think the one thing they can do is, not only [Nunez-Roches], but several of those other guys have the athletic ability to win their one-on-one’s and work to get pressure.”

A battle-tested Herd offensive line will have its hands full, but the same will also be true for the USM offense.

The Golden Eagles, which averages 288 of its 378 yards per game through the air, will have to protect sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens from a Herd defense that wreaks havoc on quarterbacks.

Mullens, a returning starter from a year ago, leads the team in passing with 1,950 yards and 10 touchdowns. The sophomore’s top targets are wide receivers Casey Martin and Michael Thomas, who have 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns combined.

Mullens and the passing-minded Golden Eagles will have to deal with pressure from players like Herd linebacker Neville Hewitt and defensive end Arnold Blackmon, who lead the Marshall defense in sacks.

On the ground, the Golden Eagles are averaging just 90 yards per game. Running back George Payne has all six of the USM’s rushing touchdowns.

Holliday said he and the team knows, starting with USM, it will get each opponent’s best shot over the next four weeks, and the Herd’s response will be how it is remembered.

“There’s no doubt we’re going to take everyone’s best shot,” Holliday said. “You get to this point in the season, people remember what you did in November.”

It will be important November, too. The Herd is one of a handful of teams playing for a spot in the College Football Access Bowl. With no ranking to go off of in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Herd will have to go undefeated and hope the committee sees it as the best Group of Five school available.

Holliday said his team isn’t worried about the rankings though and is just focused on the remaining four games, starting Saturday.

“We try not to spend a whole lot of time worrying about what we can’t control,” Holliday said. “The only thing we can control is going out and going to work every day, be prepared and let the chips fall. There’s a lot of football left to be played.”

The Herd will kick off what it hopes is a memorable November Saturday at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on the American Sports Network.

Shannon Stowers can be contacted at [email protected].