Football: Relentless fans fuel Battle for the Bell rivalry

The last time the Ohio Bobcats were at Joan C. Edwards Stadium the team was riding one of its biggest wins in school history: a 2012 season-opening victory at Penn State. Expectations were high for the ‘Cats; they were predicted to go undefeated by multiple media outlets. The Marshall Thundering Herd were trying to spoil those plans.

Now Ohio has the opportunity to do what Marshall could not complete two seasons ago.

The Thundering Herd have been picked by virtually every sports media member to finish the season undefeated in 2014. Ohio remains one of the toughest opponents left in Marshall’s way, and the rivalry that these two teams fight over has recently intensified over the past decade. The Battle for the Bell has replaced the Miami RedHawks rivalry for top billing as the most heated matchup for the Bobcats on the gridiron.

“This rivalry is important,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said. “I think both football teams recognize that, and it is certainly important to our fans, as well as the Marshall fans.”

The Battle for the Bell has brought out the best in the Bobcats and the Thundering Herd, especially as of late. Marshall may have made the move from the MAC to Conference USA in 2005, but a hard-fought feud in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in 2009 renewed an annual battle between these cross-state foes.

Five of the past six contests have been decided by four points or less. The Bobcats have won the previous three games. The previous three belonged to the Thundering Herd, including the last game between the two teams as conference opponents. The last two games have featured thrilling Bobcat defensive stops, thwarting the efforts of quarterback Rakeem Cato and Marshall late in the fourth quarter.

In the first of the two most recent games, Cato mercilessly cut into the ‘Cats defense through the air, completing 44 of 65 pass attempts. The Bobcats started the game down 14-0 in the first quarter, but Ohio stayed resilient. Trailing by one score in the fourth quarter, on fourth down with five yards to go within the Marshall 30-yard line, Tyler Tettleton audibled and threw a 27-yard strike to Ryan Clark to tie the game.

A couple of drives later Cato and Marshall were driving at the Ohio 30-yard line when cornerback Lorenzo Fisher stripped the ball from a Thundering Herd wide receiver. Safety Nathan Carpenter took the fumble 48 yards, putting the Bobcats in position for the game-winning field goal.

Redshirt senior defensive lineman Kendrick Smith remembers that game being more raucous than the Big 10 environment brewed in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, two games prior. Although the Marshall teams of late have been competitive on the field, Smith and many Bobcats will credit the disorderly and rambunctious environment at Joan C. Edwards Stadium as their biggest challenge this upcoming Saturday.

“The fans are probably a little bit more aggressive than the players at times,” Smith said. “We have to quiet them up and take it to them from start to finish.”

That was not the case two Septembers ago in Huntington. Marshall ran all over Ohio for the first 15 minutes. The Bobcats responded with 17 unanswered points in the second quarter, but the foundations for the press box were already rattling from the roaring crowd. With an inexperienced offense going into their third game of the season with more question marks than ever, the fans will play a big role in shaking the foundations of the ‘Cats early on.

The veteran defense will need to be the unit that once again steadies Ohio on the road.

“We’re going into a hostile environment, and we’re open to that challenge,” redshirt junior cornerback Ian Wells said. “We’re going to go in there and get a win.”

Wells has already experienced two wins against the Thundering Herd as a Bobcat. He has also been a part of the unit that has stepped up in crunch time to ensure that Ohio would be lofting the bell on the field after the clock struck triple zero. The ‘Cats did improve on containing Cato a little more aggressively, and it paid off with Marshall starting a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter at Peden Stadium last season.

The secondary stepped up with Cato commanding the offense with a chance at completing a comeback against the ‘Cats. With Marshall within striking distance with just over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, ball hawk Devin Bass swooped in to make sure that the Thundering Herd would not take Ohio to overtime with a game-clinching pick. The Bobcats went up 10 with just under three minutes left. The Battle for the Bell was once against decided by a young Ohio defensive core.

That is not be the case anymore. The Bobcat defense is a disciplined unit that has already registered 7.0 sacks and 17 tackles behind the line of scrimmage over two games. Although Ohio was buried earlier on by Kentucky, the team took a stand over the final three quarters. The resiliency and perseverance of this year’s defense will carry the team a long way, and it will play a key role in deciding Saturday’s Battle for the Bell.

With Huntington, West Virginia, being one of the most brutal stomping grounds for a college football team outside of the Big Five, the Bobcats will have to put their heads on straight and play with the poise they displaying against Kent State.

“You feel it the night before when you stay in the hotel,” Wells said. “You’re driving past frat houses, you’re getting beer cans thrown at you, people calling you names, flicking you off. It’s a great college football environment.”

A “great college football environment” is not always great for both parties involved as evidenced above. A sea painted kelly green swarms the city of Huntington, West Virginia, plenty of hours before kickoff. The tailgates provide sparse room for visiting traffic to stake a limited parking spot.

Things get more serious than that once the Thundering Herd faithful enter the stadium. Senior running back Tim Edmond recalls a situation two years ago that almost landed his mother outside of Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

“(My mom) had came to the game and almost got kicked out,” Tim Edmond said of his mother’s troubles with getting to her assigned section outside of the stadium. “They had her walk all the way around, and her seat was right there.”

Although times were different for both teams back in 2012, the tides have since changed in favor of Marshall. What has not changed is Huntington’s undying love for the Thundering Herd. With the NFL-hopeful Cato already two wins into his fourth year as the Marshall starter, the Thundering Herd are already on their way to an undefeated season. The early-season matchup with Ohio may prove to be the most difficult obstacle in Marshall’s way, just like they were for the Bobcats last time the teams met in West Virginia.

The 58th meeting of the Battle for the Bell does not hold any specific significance heading into Saturday’s game. But just like any recent matchup between Ohio and Marshall, it has the chance to break out into a back-and-forth offensive frenzy ultimately settled by a play of defensive expertise.

“We’ve played them once in a bowl game, we’ve played them at their place and here at our place, and those games are generally all extremely competitive football games,” Solich said.

The competitiveness will be flowing throughout the Ohio River on Saturday, with those at Joan C. Edwards Stadium supplying the energy.

“I think that is also something that leads to the rivalry in terms of the players, fans, and everybody getting excited about it,” Solich said. “That’s what this game is all about.”

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