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Getting To Know Marshall With Underdog Dynasty

Nick Lewis of Underdog Dynasty answers some questions about the Thundering Herd.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

There is no dedicated Marshall site within the SB Nation network. When we played the Thundering Herd three seasons ago in West Lafayette there was the Thundering Blog, but that site has not been updated in a year. Fortunately, SB nation still has us covered with Underdog Dynasty. That is a catch-all site for non Power-5 conference teams that don't have a blog home such as Conference USA, the Sun Belt, and such.

Underdog Dynasty happens to have a Marshall expert in Nick Lewis, and he was happy to answer my questions about Marshall here in the pre-season:

T-Mill: Holy crap the offense was amazing last year. After losing Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler (thankfully, after Shuler had a 19-200 day at Purdue in 2012) does it take a step back or are there plug and play  options at this point.

Nick: So, the real answer to this one is kind of yes and no. There are dozens of teams this season who are replacing a starting quarterback from last year. There are even a handful who are replacing four-year starter QB's (ECU comes readily to mind). But nobody is going to have as big a drop from last year to this year as Marshall will when they transition from Rakeem Cato - the guy who reset all of the Herd passing records - to Michael Birdsong.

Birdsong is no slouch, because he produced at James Madison and they're no FCS chump. Then again, he only started one season there, hasn't played a single snap of live football in a year and a half, and is at Marshall at least in some fractional part because the coach who recruited him to JMU (and was the only DI recruiter to do so) is now on the Marshall staff. Between Cato's reliability and Birdsong's inexperience, that's a massive chasm of change, no matter how good Birdsong is eventually.

Shuler was and Devon Johnson is pretty darn good, but they have enough receiver talent to replace Shuler and Johnson didn't exist before last season. Plus, who knows how much of their success was connected to Cato's? I guess we'll find out pretty early on.


T-Mill: Purdue's history against powerful running backs is... not good.  Just look at how we do against Wisconsin every year. Should I be mildly terrified of Devon Johnson or in a full blown panic?

Nick: I think mildly terrified is appropriate. He was extremely productive last season, and that was behind a good line that more or less returns. That was also his first year as a starter with a quarterback under center that demanded a lot of respect. I don't think he's about to Melvin Gordon your asses, but he could easily have a decent day that turns into a great one of that bend-don't-break defense bends just a little too much.

T-Mill: All this said, much was made about how Marshall played no one last year. Is there much hype around this game that the Herd gets a very  beatable Power 5 team to make a statement early on?

Nick: Yes, much was made (and rightfully so) of Marshall not playing anybody last season, and their schedule is actually marginally easier this season (depending on how accurate you think 2015 projections are). I don't think there is much external hype on this game, necessarily, because nobody will be talking about Purdue or Marshall until at least October - and that's if they're undefeated at that point. Internally though? There is no way that opening the season with a loss to one of the best teams in an extremely weak schedule will bode particularly well for anything.

Marshall is very likely to repeat last season - blow through the beginning before stumbling against either Western Kentucky or Louisiana Tech (because those were loss and near-loss last season and those teams will both improve more this season). The result of this game probably won't change much in terms of external perception, but it won't exactly help anything either.

T-Mill: Let's talk defense. The numbers were good last year, but it got shredded by Western Kentucky. Is it a good unit or was it a product of a weak schedule?

Nick: Many Marshall fans will debate with me over whether Marshall's defense was Goliath, or whether a schedule full of Davids made them look that way. I lean towards the latter, since the best offense they played all year (WKU) absolutely shredded them, and the best defense they played all year (La Tech) darn near shut them down hard.

Purdue's 2014 offense was much closer to North Texas than Western Kentucky, but this was a decent run defense that lost most of their best tacklers from last season. So there are opportunities here, especially of Purdue is going to make that theoretical third-year leap.

T-Mill: What do you see about Purdue, a team that is 4-20 the last two years with only two FBS wins, that can be scary?

Nick: Uh... their mascot? No, seriously though. This is a tricky one. 2014 Marshall would have embarrassed 2014 Purdue, especially if it were at Marshall. A year later, Marshall will be noticeably worse this season, but I don't see anything about Purdue that says "OH MY GOD, THE HUMANITY, HOW WILL MARSHALL HANDLE THEM?!" This one could be 45-21 Marshall, 35-28 Purdue, or anything in between.