Keeping The Bell In Athens

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Deep inside the walls of Peden Stadium sits a bronze bell: “The Bell” to be more precise. It’s a token of victory awarded to the winner of the Marshall-Ohio football game, a rivalry dating back to 1905.

That year, the two schools—separated by a mere 80 miles—met for the first time on the gridiron. Marshall won that game 6-5. Since then the two universities have faced off 56 times, with Ohio leading the series 31-19-6. But this rivalry—which has lasted through more than a century in spite of a dark tragedy, several hiatuses, spanned across two divisions and three conference changes—didn’t get a physical trophy until 1996.

Since then the Ohio Bobcats have only won The Bell three times, including both of the previous two years. Sitting inside the stadium, seeing The Bell every day, has taken on a new meaning to the team.

“We actually ring the bell every day. We get it out right before we come to practice,” said sixth-year senior cornerback Travis Carrie. “Don’t ring the bell if you’re not going to come out here and practice 110 percent.”

But the seniors could be ringing The Bell for the last time as this Saturday the ‘Cats (1-1) welcome Marshall (2-0) to Athens for the 57th installment of the rivalry. If Ohio loses, The Bell will make the 80-mile trip back to Huntington, W.Va., where the Thundering Herd will host it for at least a year. That’s not something redshirt senior Xavier Hughes wants to let happen.

“It means everything to us,” he said of the possibility to keep The Bell in Athens for the remainder of his senior season. “We want to keep this bell from here on out … It’s a must win.”

To make that a reality, though, Ohio must pass a tough test from a Marshall team that always beings it’s A-game. Last year the Bobcats needed a fourth-quarter touchdown and a late game-winning field goal to retain possession of the trophy. This year’s game figures to be a close one as well.

The Thundering Herd possess one of the more potent offenses in college football. Through two games this season they’ve averaged 53.5 points, enough for the eighth best average in the Football Bowl Subdivision (the top level of college football). They’re led by junior quarterback Rakeem Cato, who finished fifth in the nation with 4,201 yards and third in the country with 37 touchdowns a season ago. The quarterback, now in his third year as the starter, is off to a fantastic start so far this season as well, though his numbers are slightly down due to a recently discovered running attack that balances out Marshall’s offense.

Lining up behind Cato is sophomore speedy back Steward Butler who is averaging nearly 10 yards per carry this season. He’s joined by Essray Taliaferro in the backfield, providing the Thundering Herd with a two-headed rushing attack. But the key to success against Marshall still comes down to stopping Cato.

In two games against the Miami native, Ohio has had mixed results. In 2011, when he was a freshman, the ‘Cats picked him off four times en route to a 44-7 win. Carrie accounted for two of those interceptions in that game, but watched from the sidelines in 2012 as Cato showed off his improved skills throwing for more than 400 yards and three touchdowns. Carrie knows that come Saturday, Cato is going to resemble 2012’s version more than his freshman form.

“I think that he’s learned and grown from that,” he said in reference to the 2011 game. “You can see from his stats and the way his play has been over the past few years.”

Carrie added that it all boils down to pressuring Cato and forcing him to convert long third downs. He said that if Ohio can do that, they stand a good chance of forcing him to make mistakes.

Redshirt senior quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who is 2-0 against Cato and the Herd as a starter, had high praise for the Marshall field general as well but noted that Marshall’s defense, which struggled last year, shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Herd’s defense has been praised all summer long as being one of the nation’s most improved under new defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. Through two games they’ve looked the part, holding opponents to a combined 14 points, good enough for ninth in the FBS.

Tettleton has thrown for six touchdowns against Marshall and said that the offense will need to come out focused and not overlooking their opponent’s defensive potential in order to keep up that success and keep The Bell in its current home. He’ll need to not only rely on his offense, but a strong showing from the ‘Cats defense to make it happen.

Hughes seems up for the challenge and feels obligated to more than his own team to make it happen.

“We definitely got to come out with this win … for our fans, and for our alumni who really got a chance to make it a rivalry. We need to put it away for them,” he said.

Saturday at 8 p.m., Hughes will get his chance to ensure that he gets to keep ringing that bell.