BOGACZYK: Birdsong Ready to Take Herd Reins for Debut
The Word on the Herd-Aug. 31, 2015
Herd QB Chart
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It's been a decade since Marshall football has experienced something that will take place Sunday afternoon at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
When Purdue becomes the first Big Ten Conference football visitor to Huntington -- that's a first -- it also will be the first time since 2005 that the Thundering Herd has had a fourth-year junior making his first Marshall start at quarterback.
In the 2005 opener -- a home win over William & Mary -- it was redshirt junior Jimmy Skinner. So, with four-year starter Rakeem Cato a rookie with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, the successor is Michael Birdsong, who won the job in spring practice and has done absolutely nothing to lose his grip on it in the 2015 preseason.
He's also starting in a game against one of the schools known as "Quarterback U.," thanks to names like Griese, Dawson, Danielson, Phipps, Brees, Everett ... not that Marshall needs to blush in its tradition under center with a Pennington, Leftwich, Payton and Cato.
And it is different for Birdsong than it was for Skinner, and not just because Skinner was facing a Division I-AA foe a decade ago and Birdsong goes against an FBS power conference club.
"The last couple of weeks, he's played extremely well," Herd Coach Doc Holliday said of his new gunslinger when August drills closed Saturday. "We've got to get him out there in the game and see how he reacts, but I feel confident about him."
Birdsong is no true redshirt. He's a transfer from James Madison, where he previously started 14 games before moving to Marshall and sitting out the 2014 season. The 6-foot-5, 241-pound Birdsong started two games as a JMU true freshman in 2012, then started all 12 games for the Dukes in '13. Still, that was then. This is now.
Birdsong also could make history with the Herd against the Boilermakers. No Marshall QB, in his first start, has beaten a major college opponent in the opening game of a season.
"I'm sure there will be some nerves," the red-haired Birdsong said when asked about a first Herd start. "If you don't have any nerves then -- in my opinion -- you really don't care too much about the game. I'll have a little bit of nerves maybe, it just won't be quite as much as the first go-round but they'll be there.
"Honestly, I was probably more nervous the first time I got into the game at JMU than for the first start. My first start (against visiting Georgia State on Oct. 27, 2013), I don't remember how it went that much, but it was fun."
That "first game" he mentioned? It was his first in uniform for the Dukes, a 55-7 home romp past St. Francis (Pa.). Birdsong entered what was then a 34-0 game in the third quarter and finished 6-of-7 passing for 48 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed three times for 40 yards, including a 30-yard trip. The Matoaca, Va., resident was the only true freshman to play for James Madison that season.
"The opening game of the year, I was all nerves at first," he said. "I think I dropped the first two snaps, turned the wrong way on both of them, but got a 9-yard rush on the first one and got good rush on the second one (the 30-yarder). I still made plays, so that was good."
In that 2013 first start against Georgia State, Birdsong was 11-for-23 for 119 yards through the air with a TD and an interception, and he ran six times for 43 yards. But when JMU made a coaching change and 15-year Dukes Coach Mickey Matthews -- a former Herd assistant -- was fired, Birdsong left as the new James Madison offense didn't fit his game or liking.
And while Matthews played a role in directing Birdsong toward the Herd, that local QB history played a role, too, he said.
"That was huge, just to know the success that quarterbacks like Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich, Cato have had coming out of this school and moving on to the next level," Birdsong said. "To me, a quarterback, that says a lot and each quarterback that comes into this program they know that NFL scouts will find you here. They know QBs will be here, and that's big."
As for history, tracking the performance of quarterbacks in their first starts for Marshall was interesting (see accompanying 1969-present chart in PDF link). Going back to Ted Shoebridge, the sophomore who quarterbacked the 1970 team that perished in the team plane crash, first start MU QBs have won 11 times.
Arguably, the best performance in that span belongs to Stan Hill, who replaced an injured Leftwich in November 2002 and engineered the Herd to an emotional 36-34 home win over Miami (Ohio). Hill was 25-for-39 for 292 yards -- the most for any first-time Herd QB starter -- with four TDs and two picks. He added 33 rushing yards, and ran for the game-winning touchdown.
Birdsong also feels that his transfer sit-out year will benefit him when he takes the field in his No. 11 -- in kelly green for the first time, after wearing the red "don't hit the QB" jersey for more than a year. "I've been able to get familiar with everybody," he said. "This is the longest I've been in an offensive system in college, so that right there will be huge for me. I know the offense much better than I did before (at JMU).
"But being able to sit out and watch what Cato was able to do, see how a lot of these guys move out here on the field, hopefully that familiarity will show up in the first game."
Birdsong said he doesn't have any superstations he'll deal with prior to his Herd start.
"I'm a pretty much `wake up and go play' guy," he grinned.
He's become a team leader on and off the field, and he has the vocal presence that recent Herd first-game starters lacked because they were younger.
Besides, as has been said plenty of times -- it's not how you start. It's how you finish. Chad Pennington threw six interceptions in his first Marshall start, as a 1995 freshman at Chattanooga. The Herd still won, 35-32 as Pennington went 23-for-36 for 284 yards and three scores.
Things turned out pretty well for Pennington after that, right?
"Six picks?" Birdsong said, eyes widening. "Chad's first start? That's got to help (settle Birdsong) a little bit. Hopefully, it's not that bad."
So, what's the biggest thing Birdsong wants to remember when he takes the field with the Herd offense against Purdue?
"Catch the first snap, I'd say," he said. "I don't want to go through that again."