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Meet Marshall, scampering in loudly at 4-0, like a thundering herd of some sort

NCAA Football: Myrtle Beach Bowl-Marshall at Connecticut David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

Marshall’s been a little tough to figure in 2023, because while the Thundering Herd are 4-0, they’ve had themselves an adventure getting there, making a habit out of falling behind and rallying.

They were behind FCS Albany in their opener 17-7 in the third quarter, trailed ECU 13-10 in the fourth, and this past weekend let Old Dominion get out to a 21-3 advantage by the second quarter. Hey, if you’re gonna start 4-0, why not have some fun* along the way?

(*Put the fans through a lot of stress.)

The Herd rank 63rd in the latest SP+, with a schedule strength that ranks 120th. SP+ doesn’t like what it has seen from Marshall’s offense (No. 88 in SP+) but is a believer in that defense, which ranks 27th.

Marshall’s pass defense has been exceptional early on, with opponents averaging a mere 4.5 yards per attempt so far this season. Maybe the quarterbacks on these mostly bad teams are half blind, but even so, that’s an impressive number. The Herd have allowed only three touchdown passes and have five interceptions, while limiting opponents to a 51.2 completion percentage.

The pass rush is keyed by highly-productive defensive end Owen Porter, who had 15 TFLs and 9.5 sacks in 2022, earning him first-team All-Sun Belt honors. He collected 60 tackles in total, which is an impressive number for a DE. He already has 25 tackles this year, including seven for a loss and 3.5 sacks.

Marshall’s defense also features a good cover corner in Micah Abraham, who was among the nation’s leaders in picks last season with six, and has two so far this fall. Veteran linebacker Eli Neal leads the team in tackles and has finished first or second on the team in that category in each of the last three seasons. He’s started 40 straight games.

Marshall has limited opponents to about 24% conversions on third downs, and getting teams into passing downs has been the recipe for success. The rush defense has been worryingly leaky of late: Virginia Tech ran for 184 on 6.1 per carry, and ODU put up 344 on the ground at 11.5 per carry.

Offensively, Marshall has been working through a receiver group that lacks a lot of starting experience, but the Herd have a solid quarterback in Cam Fancher and an excellent running back in Rasheen Ali.

Ali missed most of 2022 but ran for 1400 yards in 2021 with 23 touchdowns; he’s well on pace to challenge those numbers in 2023, with 475 yards and nine scores through four games. He’s averaging about 23 carries per game.

Fancher has completed 70% of his throws, helping to make up for a modest 7.1 YPA, and is coming off a career game in which he threw for 278 and ran for 102. He’s not normally quite that effective with his legs but obviously can create some problems there. His passing performances have been inconsistent, with him piling up numbers against Albany and Old Dominion and struggling against ECU (6.4 YPA) and Virginia Tech (6.1). He had two interceptions and just one touchdown pass combined against the Pirates and Hokies.

That passing game has not been explosive in general—the team’s top two receivers are tight end Cade Conley and WR Caleb Coombs, and both are averaging a little over nine yards per reception. Marshall actually has fewer completions over 20 yards than NC State this season (granted, in one fewer game played).

The Herd have some clear strengths to match some obvious iffiness, and some star power on both sides of the ball. It’s a pretty okay team that should find its way to bowl eligibility for the seventh straight season. And that’s not bad! Will they be good enough to beat NC State on Saturday? Who knows. This is a tough one to predict, what with Marshall being a little all over the place, and MJ Morris making his first start of 2023 for State. There will be football, that at least is for sure.