Rakeem Cato earned the starting job for Marshall (1-3) coming into the season while Teddy Bridgewater may get his first collegiate start for Louisville (2-1) in place of junior Will Stein, who is listed as questionable following a shoulder injury suffered against Kentucky. Bridgewater threw two 25-yard touchdown passes in relief to deliver a 24-17 win against the Cardinals' in-state rivals on Sept. 17.
Despite Cato starting his team's first four games, Marshall coach Doc Hollliday said Bridgewater's early enrollment at Louisville and participation in spring practices give him the edge in experience.
"They both can make all the throws. The only difference I see at this point is that Bridgewater was there for spring ball and that does make a difference," he said. "He is probably three months ahead of Cato on the learning curve."
Stein took advantage of Louisville's bye week after the Kentucky game to rehab his shoulder and did not resume throwing until Wednesday. If he's unable to go he said the team is comfortable with its youngster at the helm.
Bridgewater, one of the nation's most highly touted quarterbacks in the 2011 signing class, played one series each in Louisville's first two games. He said he's content to play the role of the dutiful understudy, ready to produce when his number is called.
"Will is still the starter and I expect him to start this week," Bridgewater said. "At any moment I can come in like last game or we can still have the rotation we had in the first two games."
Strong said he had planned to play Bridgewater in the second and third quarter of the Kentucky game but Stein's injury forced Bridgewater into extended action. A common refrain among Louisville coaches and players is the how rare it is to see such leadership and poise from a freshman.
"He's always carried himself as the starter," Strong said. "Understand, our players were not shocked at the way he played in that (Kentucky) game."
To aid in Cato's development, the Thundering Herd need to reboot its ground game. Marshall was held to just six rushing yards last out, losing 30-10 at home against Virginia Tech.
"They're going to try run early. If they don't have success I think they'll go to the pass game right away. So what we have to do is contain the run. If we can do that and make them throw the ball then our defensive line can have a great day," Bedford said.
Louisville has work to do on the ground as well. The Cardinals have scored just a single rushing touchdown, a 2-yard plunge by Victor Anderson in the first quarter of the opener against Murray State.
Strong moved backup quarterback Dominque Brown to running back prior to the Kentucky game, and the sophomore responded with a team-high 91 yards on 14 carries. The coach said he'd like to see Anderson, Brown or Jeremy Wright emerge as a lead back in the same way Bilal Powell did last season en route to more than 1,400 yards and a Big East-leading rushing attack.
To aid the Louisville running game, junior center Mario Benavides is expected to see his first action of the season. A preseason candidate for the Rimington Trophy for the nation's top center, Benavides has not played in 2011 due to an infection in his ankle.
Louisville and Marshall's last two meetings came in the postseason. Byron Leftwich threw four touchdowns as Marshall beat a Dave Ragone-led Louisville team 38-15 in the 2002 GMAC Bowl, a game more remembered by Cardinals fans for news leaking of then-coach John L. Smith's departure for Michigan State during the broadcast.
Chad Pennington's 411 yards and four touchdowns bested Chris Redman's 336 yards through the air to give Marshall its first-ever bowl win in the 1998 Motor City Bowl, 48-29.
This meeting will have a bit of a Sunshine State feel, with Strong and Holliday having served together on the staff of Florida's 2006 national championship team. The two coaches are both in their second year at their respective schools.
Thirty-one players on the Marshall roster and 28 on Louisville's squad hail from Florida, and among them are the two freshmen quarterbacks, both Miami natives. Cato, who signed out of Miami Central, frequently faced Bridgewater while he played at Miami Northwestern.