Note: This preview appears in the Friday, Sept. 13 newspaper on Page B1.
It’s been four years since Ohio and Marshall met on the gridiron in an installment for ‘The Battle for the Bell.’
Will the long-running rivalry series between Group of 5 Conference foes on opposite sides of the Ohio River still have the customary bite? The answer comes Saturday night when the Bobcats (1-1) square off against the Thundering Herd (1-1) inside Joan C. Edwards Stadium at 6:30 p.m.
But you could just ask Austen Pleasants, the Bobcats’ mammoth-sized offensive tackle, who grew up in Ironton. Pleasants said life in the ‘Tri-State’ — think of the southern point of Ohio bordered on the west by Kentucky and on the east by West Virginia — featured plenty of Marshall football.
“I went to a few games growing up, but I went to every camp possible at Marshall,” said Pleasants.
But Marshall didn’t offer Pleasants, now a two-year starter and emerging as one of the best tackles in the Mid-American Conference. It stung, and he hasn’t forgotten.
“They never texted me, never called me, never talked to me and then showed up at the school a week before signing day,” Pleasants said. “Of course I had been committed to OU for almost a year at that point. I was like ‘Screw you guys.’”
Saturday’s installment of the Bell Battle will be the 60th in the series between former MAC rivals. But it’s the first since 2015 when Ohio capped the then-every year meeting with a 21-10 win at Peden Stadium.
Pleasants was there for the ‘Cats last trip to Huntington, a blow-out loss to Rakeem Cato and company, and he was in Athens for OU’s revenge a year later. He was on the Ohio sideline at that point, and though he didn’t play, he remembered the recruiting snub and the fire of the rivalry.
“I was so pumped when we won that game. I was one of the first people down into the end zone ringing the Bell,” Pleasants said. “I didn’t even play.
“But I was so excited when we won. I still remember just flat-out sprinting down there to get to the Bell and let them know about it.”
Pleasants, of course, isn’t the only member of the Ohio program who can help remind the Bobcats about what they’re getting into on Saturday. The Herd have one of the best home-field advantages in the entire country in FBS football. The vast majority of Ohio’s coaching staff was in Athens for the last run against Marshall.
And with an early-evening kickoff, the Bobcats will probably be facing a more rowdy crowd than usual.
“Our guys are going to have to rise up,” said Ohio Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin. “They got the loud speakers and the band is behind our bench.
“The crowd is a lot of fun, they get rowdy. They’re chirping the whole time too, and maybe there’s a smell of bourbon through the stadium,” Albin joked. “But it’s great. It’s really is.”
Edwards Stadium certainly has been great for the Herd. Marshall has an .825 winning percentage at the stadium, which ranks fourth nationally among FBS programs who have played more than one game at their current facility. The Herd trails just Alabama, Georgia Southern and Boise State.
For Ohio head coach Frank Solich, this will be his fourth trip for a game day in Huntington. Ohio is just 1-2 in the previous three visits with Solich, with the only win coming in a 27-24 nail-biter back in 2012. It’ll be hot, humid, loud and the house will be decidedly in the Bobcats’ ear the whole time.
Solich said he’s going to find out a lot about his team on Saturday.
“It’ll be louder than it was at Pittsburgh,” Solich said. “We have to be ready for that, and we have ways to get ready for that, but you cannot let fans take you out of a ball game.
“You’ve got to go down there believing in one another, ready to step on the field and play four quarters of tough football. If you play well enough, you have a shot at winning.”
In Huntington, meanwhile, 10th-year head coach Doc Holliday said the Bobcats will be what they always are under Solich — a tough out. OU has won four of the last five meetings in the series, and Holliday sees current Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke as a reincarnation of former OU QB Tyler Tettleton. Tettleton was 3-0 in three starts agains the Herd.
“They’re like clones. They’re all really good football players that know how to play the game,” Holliday said. “They never change. Every time we play them, they’re the same kind of team.
“They get after you. They’re like their coach.”
But for one week at least, the Herd and the Bobcats will have the same kind of goals and motivation. Both teams were stuffed in the second halves last week during national showcase games on the road against quality opposition.
Ohio had just 12 yards of offense in the fourth quarter as it couldn’t get over the hump at Pitt in a 20-10 loss. A week ago on Friday, Marshall lost 14-7 at nationally ranked Boise State after a second half where the Herd ran just 14 plays.
Both sides will be hoping to see more offense in week 3.
“That was a game I’d like to have back. There’s a lot of mistakes that I made that if they go a different way then it’s a different game as well,” said Rourke, who played the entire game last week despite an illness that nearly took him out of action.
“We’re looking for a bounce-back game and we’re looking forward to being able to go out there and get some redemption but also play against a really high quality opponent.”
There’s no better place to find some redemption than in a rivalry series. That’s why Pleasants found the 2015 win so sweet. It came on the heels of a 44-14 loss at Marshall in 2014 when the Herd, and the Huntington crowd, jeered and sneered the Bobcats into a rout on the road.
“It gets pretty bad sometimes. There’s things I can’t repeat that they say,” Pleasants said. “And I really though it had an affect on the team that year. I saw players start trading words with the fans or whatever. I was like ‘woah.’
“It’ll be fun, but have to be focused.”
Can Ohio’s young offense put an off-week behind it, and forge ahead against a good Marshall defense in what most likely with be the most hostile road environment it’ll face all season. Can the Herd shake off their own offensive doldrums and rev things up thanks to playing in front of a rabid fan base?
Pleasants is eager to see if the ‘Battle for the Bell’ still has the same kind of heat it did four years ago. But for him, it never left.
“We’ve broken it up so much I don’t know if it’s as big as it has been in the past.” he said. “I know it means a lot to me and I’ve expressed that to the O-line and stuff, about how hard we have to work this week because they’re going to be bringing it.
“Every game is like that, but there’s a little bit extra incentive in this one for me.”