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Keys to the game: Marshall

Breaking down the keys to a game in the season-opener is tough to do, especially when you have nothing to go on but practice reports and last year’s news. While my plan is to give 10 keys to the game prior to every game this season for the Canes, I think this first one will be more of a hodge-podge of info and what I’m personally going to be looking for from the Canes.

I’ll start with Marshall.

Breaking down Marshall: This isn’t your older’s brothers Thundering Herd – the one that had Randy Moss catching touchdown passes from Byron Leftwich or Chad Pennington. This Marshall went 5-7 last season and had one of the worst defenses in all of college football. The team ranked 114th out of 119 teams in I-A ball last season against the pass and ranked 101st and 102nd, respectively, in total defense (390.2 ypg) and scoring defense scoring defense (29.25 ppg).

The Herd did have Conference USA’s Defensive Player of The Year in defensive end Albe McClellan, a 6-2, 225-pound end who put up Calais Campbell like numbers (18.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks). But the junior was lost for the season on August 6th when he tore his ACL. Aside from McClennan, The Herd’s secondary also took a hit when returning cornerback starter Zearrick Matthews broke his forearm in a freak collision with a teammate. Matthews will also miss Saturday’s game. The Herd will have only five real returning, experienced starters – one at defensive tackle, two linebackers, a corner and free safety C.J. Spellman.

-> Thanks to recent UM grad Paul Burkhart for some video from UM's on-campus pep rally before the Marshall game.

Offensively, Marshall wasn’t so bad last season. The Herd had one of the country’s top rushing offenses, one that averaged 167 yards on the ground (30th best nationally). But talented RB Ahmad Bradshaw is gone, replaced by junior Chubb Small (5-9, 200) who had all of 42 carries last season for 193 yards. The offensive line, which still features talented center and Remington candidate Doug Lagursky, returns only one other starter – right guard Brian Leggett. Quarterback Bernard Morris is back and so is the team’s second leading receiver Emmanuel Spann (5-11, 195). But Marshall’s best offensive weapon could be former Homestead High standout Darius Passmore, a 6-3, 180-pound junior, who led all California JUCO receivers with 18 touchdowns in 2005. But sat out in 2006.

The special teams are nothing special. Anthony Binswager handles kicks and punts, but he’s not exactly great. He was 5 of 13 on field goal attempts last season. The Herd also had three punts blocked and didn’t return a kick or a punt for a score.

The coach, Mark Snyder, is in his second season. He has a little experience against the Canes. He was the linebackers coach at Ohio State when the Buckeyes beat UM for the national title in 2002. His new defensive coordinator, Steve Dunlap, knows the Canes well. He coached at N.C. State the previous two seasons, Syracues from 2001 to 2004 and West Virginia before that. He’s beaten UM twice when he was at Syracuse.

But all that honestly means little in my eyes if the Canes show up to play Saturday with the same intensity we’ve seen from them this spring and fall. UM will be in the Orange Bowl and has the more talented team. They should win. But covering the 18-point spread will depend a lot on how well some of the things I’ll be looking for end up happening. The five things I’ll be watching for from the Canes on Saturday is below.

1. Kirby Freeman’s comfort level running Patrick Nix’s new offense. Is Kirby going to be wild and trying to create too much like he was at times last year? Or is he going to be smarter and are the Canes going to be able to move the ball down the field? If he’s the latter, Miami’s offense should produce at least 200 yards passing and at least three touchdowns in this game.

2. Freeman and new center John Rochford’s quarterback-center exchanges. Rochford was a fullback this time last year. Freeman was the backup. It would be nice for Canes fans to see no problems in their exchanges Saturday. A fumble or two and you’ve got to be worried going into Norman next week.

3. The Canes’ run defense. Last year, UM set a school record in allowing less than 67 yards a game and allowed only one rusher to eclipse the 100-yard mark. This year, Baraka Atkins and Kareem Brown are gone and the linebacking core is without Jon Beason and Glenn Cook. Tavares Gooden, the team’s new starting middle linebacker, can’t get lost on the field. He needs to be a leader. Oklahoma can run the football. Marshall has a new running back and only two returning lineman. The Canes – namely starter tackle Dwayne Hendricks and backup Antonio Dixon need to show – they can still stop inferior opponents from running the football.

4. The entire special teams unit. Francisco Zampogna won the kicking duties and Matt Bosher is the team’s new punter. They need to show they can deliver. Same with new kick returner Richard Gordon and punt returner Graig Cooper. With the kickoff spot being moved back, field position will be a big part of winning close games this season. Playing a team like Marshall should allow the Canes to flourish. And they need to.

5. Freshman cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke. It doesn’t happen that often at UM where a true freshman starts in his very first game. We know how well Van Dyke runs and we’ve heard how physical he’s been in practice. But how is he going to hold up? Coach Randy Shannon and defensive coordinator Tim Walton made him the only other sure starter next to safety Kenny Phillips. If Van Dyke struggles, there may be reason to worry the Canes corners might be in trouble this season.

My prediction: UM 34, Marshall 13. I predicted a 30-13 victory a couple weeks ago, but I’m predicting a little bit more of a margin of victory for the Canes. I think Javarris James and Graig Cooper end up having big games, combining for close to 200 yards rushing with two touchdowns to lead the offense. Freeman will end up completing a high percentage of short and mid-range passes and Darnell Jenkins will catch Freeman’s only touchdown pass. The defense will create a few turnovers and score a touchdown of its own, something that hasn’t happened lately too much at The U. Zampogna will make two field goals.

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TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE
A "Canes Four Pack" with four tickets for $81 for Saturday's season-opening game against Marshall is still available. Fans can purchase four tickets to see the game for only $81, which is a $97 savings. To order the Canes Four Pack fans can call 305-284-CANE or 1-800-GO-CANES or order online by clicking here. Also, single-game tickets for the Marshall game will be on sale on Saturday morning starting at 8 a.m. at the South Plaza of the Orange Bowl. Tickets cost $20 and $47.

REMEMBER TO WEAR ORANGE
Canes fans have been planning this for weeks, but I've been too lazy to put it in my blog. There is a request for all fans to wear orange to the game Saturday. Fans want to fill the OB in orange in support of the program.

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