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And In That Corner: Marshall brings a hampered yet successful ground game to Notre Dame

Corey Robinson takes a tour around Ohio State's campus and explains how Buckeye Grove is used to honor All-Americans.

Even the most thorough college football fans can lose track of the ups and downs of programs jumping conferences. With Marshall heading to the Sun Belt in Charles Huff’s second season as head coach, Notre Dame fans should look beyond that Conference USA departure and instead further into the Thundering Herd’s roster.

For that look, let’s turn to Luke Creasy of The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, W. Va.

DF: We should start with the basics, and with the Thundering Herd, I suppose the most basic storyline is the absence of star junior running back Rasheen Ali. In late August, Marshall announced Ali will take “some time” away from the team until he is “mentally, physically and emotionally ready to return.” It is not our place to pry any further than that, so I will simply ask if it is correct to assume Ali will not make the trip to South Bend?

LC: Marshall redshirt sophomore running back Rasheen Ali will not play against Notre Dame this week. Khalan Laborn and Ethan Payne will undoubtedly each see significant playing time as the Herd travels to face the Irish.

Without him — 1,401 yards and 23 touchdowns on 250 rushing attempts last season — the Herd turned to Ethan Payne and Khalan Laborn against FCS-level Norfolk State in Saturday’s 55-3 win, and that duo averaged 9.77 yards per rush on their way to 215 total yards and four combined touchdowns. Do you expect Marshall to again use both? What type of running styles do they employ?

Payne (113 yards, 10 carries) and Laborn (102 yards, 12 carries) each ran for two touchdowns against Norfolk State and present similar characteristics to Ali’s game, but just accomplish it in different ways.

Where Ali is explosive and can flash speed in open space, Laborn and Payne each are physical runners that tend to rely on their strength versus speed when running the football. Together, they create a nice 1-2 punch without the Herd’s star in the lineup.

The Herd lost four offensive line starters this offseason while adding transfers from East Carolina, Purdue and Rutgers. If Ali was behind this line, maybe he covers up some of the inevitable growing pains, but Payne and Laborn combined for 83 career carries before last week (with all of Laborn’s coming at Florida State in 2019). Notre Dame has an excellent defensive line; how much of a chance do you give Marshall of slowing that pressure, be it via pass blocking or via leaning entirely on a short running game?

The Marshall offensive line will face a much bigger test than it did last week against the Spartans. Growing pains will happen when you replace 132 combined starts up front, but three of Marshall’s five starters were with the team last season. One, Kendrick Sartor, started a dozen games and center Logan Osburn switched positions after playing at guard in a handful of games last season. ECU transfer Trent Holler has added a nice veteran presence.

The unit allowed two sacks in the season opener, one of which was a sack-fumble in the early goings. They will need to play tighter as a group and quicker on their feet against the Irish to make the running game as effective as it was against Norfolk State (380 yards of combined rushing).

If that line can protect him, Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi has a decent amount of experience. This is his third school in five seasons after starting his career with three seasons at Utah State, and he has played significant snaps in each of the previous four years. How has Colombi fit in the locker room and on the field?

Colombi has impressed both coaches and teammates since his arrival in Huntington. He was on campus for spring practice but did not participate due to still being enrolled at Texas Tech, but once he officially joined the team, he fit in well.

His experience is a big bonus for the Herd, already having five seasons of college football under his belt (three at Utah State, two at Texas Tech).

That experience showed on the field in Week 1, completing 24-of-26 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown. His two incompletions were a tipped-ball interception and a dropped pass in the endzone on a deep route.

Marshall head coach Charles Huff on Tuesday on Colombi’s experience: “The experience is huge because he has played in what the outside world would perceive as big games, meaning a rivalry or the logo is big or it has history and tradition. So he knows when you get on the field, it’s still 100 yards long, 53 and a third wide, they are still going to play some type of defense with 11 guys and we’re still going to play some type of offense with 11 guys. The experience of it helps.”

The Irish offensive line did not excel last week. Obviously, there is some talent difference between Ohio State and Marshall, but the Herd racked up 40 sacks last year while giving up 189 rushing yards per game. How much of a challenge will Marshall’s defensive front represent for Notre Dame? Will it be a problem for the Irish or just the right amount of frustration to spur growth for Notre Dame?

The Marshall defensive line was probably the group with the least amount of questions entering this season but needed more depth. They accomplished that through the transfer portal with the additions of Isaiah Gibson (Kentucky) and Anthony Watts (Purdue) which have added size and strength to the group up front.

Combine that with Owen Porter and Koby Cumberlander on the ends and it turns into a dangerous unit quickly. The pressure starts up front and the linebackers are adept enough to navigate through traffic to the ball. It should be a good test for the Irish.

Marshall head coach Charles Huff on Tuesday on this influx of transfers, 24 in total: “A lot of those guys didn’t choose Marshall. They’ve played in games where the helmet logo is bigger than some of the ones we see here consistently. ... The calming factor of what the transfer portal has created is it’s kids playing kids now. It’s not [Group of Five] playing [Power Five]. Now, don’t get me wrong. [Notre Dame has] a really good team and we will get to that. Trust me, really good. But from the kids’ perspective, it’s, ‘I went to school with these guys. Some of these guys I played with in high school.’ When you get in the transfer portal and the world we’re in now, talent goes all over the country.”

Now the move to the Sun Belt, what motivated that from the Marshall perspective? I love it, as that is another strong program moving into a conference full of them, but the Herd probably would have contended to win Conference USA this year, and this will be a step up in competition for second-year head coach Charles Huff & Co.

Marshall’s move to the Sun Belt was predictable when you look at the state that their former home, Conference USA, was in. I don’t think staying put just for the sake of being competitive would have been beneficial for the team or Charles Huff as a coach.

In 17 years with C-USA, Marshall played in three conference championship games and came away with one win, that being in 2014. The Herd expects to be competitive in league play and the schedule certainly provides some exciting games with defending champion Louisiana, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina coming to town later this season.

Speaking of Huff, Marshall went 1-4 in one-score games last season to finish 7-6 overall. Was some of that traceable to a first-year head coach struggling in close games? This may or may not be an attempt to remind Notre Dame fans that plenty of coaches struggle in such moments …

Each of those one-score losses had it’s own story. Against East Carolina (42-38), it was a late-game collapse that falls on lack of execution. At Appalachian State (31-30), Marshall struggled to stop the run late in the game and it hurt them. In a 34-28 loss to Middle Tennessee State, the Herd turned the ball over six times (five fumbles) on a rainy night in Murfreesboro and still found themselves with a chance to win late but put themselves too far behind in the first three quarters to matter, and in the lone win in the one-possession games, it took a late drive at the end of regulation to force overtime, where Marshall came out on top against Old Dominion.

So some of it falls back on coaching, other times it was lack of depth and sometimes just a blatant lack of execution.

As of late Wednesday night, the Irish are 20.5-point favorites on Saturday. What do you expect from the Herd?

If both teams play well and execute to the fullest of their abilities, Notre Dame wins the game, but that’s not to say the Herd won’t put up a fight. Should be an entertaining matchup.

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