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NCAA Football: Marshall at Middle Tennessee

Middle Tennessee linebacker DQ Thomas (20) and defensive end Tyshun Render (94) go for a fumble by Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green (17) during a Conference USA football game Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The early-season loss to the Blue Raiders contributed to the Thundering Herd coming up short of a division title in 2019.

HUNTINGTON — The Marshall football coaching staff doesn’t have to look far to give an example of how big this week’s Conference USA opener against Western Kentucky will be.

Last season, Marshall went to Middle Tennessee and dominated statistically, but mistakes on both sides of the football — turnovers on offense, missed tackles on defense — led to a 24-13 loss to the Blue Raiders that left the Thundering Herd in an early hole in their quest for a Conference USA East Division title.

Marshall was in control of its own destiny after going on the road to beat Florida Atlantic, but, when the Herd slipped up at Charlotte late in the year, the Owls went on to the C-USA championship game as East Division winners. The scenario showed the importance of getting off to a fast start in league play, which is going to be additionally difficult for the Herd, considering its circumstances.

Marshall senior tight end Garet Morrell said preparation started last week and continues with the team in the midst of another bye week, giving the team a chance to fine-tune prior to league play.

“Whenever you’re going into conference play, you want to be up and on everything you can be because it’s the ones that count,” Morrell said. “The ones that count are what’s going to get you to a championship.”

This week’s practice slate is key for the Herd, who spent the early part of the week going over their own fundamentals. The focus shifts now into game preparation for the Hilltoppers, whose league season opened on Saturday at Middle Tennessee before they host Marshall on Oct. 10.

Marshall defensive coordinator Brad Lambert fully knows the importance of a strong start in league play, having been the head coach at Charlotte for several seasons before arriving in Huntington.

“You just don’t have a lot of margin for error in the league,” Lambert said. “There’s a lot of good teams in the league and you go on the road. You look at Marshall-Western Kentucky — the series — and it’s usually a one-score game one way or the other.”

Last season, the game ended with a 53-yard field goal by Marshall’s Justin Rohrwasser that gave the Herd a 26-23 win — Marshall’s third-straight in the series with all coming by one score or less. With games being close in nature, limiting mistakes is vital to get a road win over the Hilltoppers.

Morrell said that Marshall’s goal is to continue to be the aggressor as they have been in the first two games of the season, which led to a top-25 ranking for a week.

Regardless of any prior ranking, Marshall knows it is 0-0 within the conference and the only goal is to go 1-0 and keep progressing forward toward its goal.

“Like we’ve said in the locker room, we don’t want to be the team that has to rely on another team to get into where we want to go,” Morrell said. “We want to be the team that puts our foot on the throat and takes charge.”