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Marshall needs run to help defense

Marshall loves to throw the ball, but knows it needs to run just to keep defenses honest.

Kent State would prefer to run the ball, but recognizes it needs to complete a pass every now and then just to keep the defense on its toes.

Two more dramatic contrasts in offensive style would be hard to find when the Thundering Herd and Golden Flashes meet Saturday in a Mid-American Conference showdown.

''This game is an unbelievable opportunity for people in northeastern Ohio,'' Kent State coach Dean Pees said.

''I don't know how many times people can come out and watch a guy that's a Heisman hopeful and another that's one of the best athletes in the conference. I don't know if anywhere around the nation you're going to see two better quarterbacks than you're going to see in Dix Stadium on Saturday.''

The Heisman Trophy hopeful is Marshall's Byron Leftwich. He averages 409 yards a game in total offense, best in the nation.

''Leftwich is a phenomenal thrower,'' Pees said. ''The guy has really got a command of the offense. He knows when to throw the ball. He's improved so much from his first season that now he's winning games with his arm and his head.''

One of the best athletes in the MAC is Kent State quarterback Joshua Cribbs. He leads a Kent State attack that averages 265 yards rushing per game, best in the conference.

''Their quarterback is a load,'' Marshall coach Bob Pruett said. ''He's able to run and throw and he makes a lot of big plays.''

About the only thing that Leftwich and Cribbs have in common is that they're both from Washington, D.C.

Marshall (2-1, 1-0 MAC) wants to establish the pass first. Kent State (2-3, 0-2) takes the opposite tack.

''We think we need to run the football to open up some areas where we need to throw,'' Pruett said in describing the Herd offense's objectives.

Kent is suffering through growing pains after finishing with a .500 record last year. The Golden Flashes haven't finished with a winning record in 15 years, so in many ways it's a new experience for them to be competitive with the best teams in the MAC.

''You get better and everybody has high expectations and that's good,'' Pees said. ''But I think sometimes you have to be a little careful because your expectations can jump over the growing grounds.

''You've been down for so long that all of a sudden you show some real improvement, and you want to improve next year as much as you improved from the previous year. That's a lot of improvement.''

Last week, Kent State lost at Northern Illinois 13-6. The Huskies won without scoring an offensive touchdown.

''I still feel like I've got a good football team,'' said Pees, whose team lost at Miami University to open the MAC schedule. ''We played two good teams on the road and lost two tough ballgames. That's stuff you've just got to fight through.''

Marshall, which has won its last seven games against Kent, hasn't played since beating Central Florida 26-21 on Sept. 20.

The Herd spent last week nursing bumps and bruises and working on Leftwich's receivers.

''What we tried to do was, one, get healthy and, two, get back to the biggest problem we're having,'' Pruett said. ''We've got to get back to catching the football. We've had 26 catchable balls that haven't been caught.''

If the Golden Flashes can rebound and if Marshall starts catching all those Leftwich passes, the showdown in Dix Stadium could be the best in the nation.

In other games around the MAC on Saturday, Northern Illinois visits Ball State, Western Michigan is at Buffalo, Ohio travels to Bowling Green and Akron is at Eastern Michigan. Miami takes on Cincinnati in a non-conference rivalry.