Marshall's Kevin Grooms picks up yards against Tulsa Saturday in Huntington.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- QUESTION FOR old-school Marshall football fans: Where were you 25 years ago?I hope you were enjoying music videos of John Cougar Mellencamp and Motley Crue, and cringing at those by Cyndi Lauper and the Pet Shop Boys. Hope you kept your collars turned down, too.But I'll grant you amnesty if you correctly remember that at this time in October 1987, the Thundering Herd was 2-3 and just coming off a 42-36 loss to hated Furman. Two weeks before that came a 37-34 loss to equally hated Eastern Kentucky.See the pattern? Things really started clicking for a quarterback (Tony Petersen), who started throwing for outrageous numbers, but the defense (under coordinator Jon Tenuta) bent and often broke. Shoot, the Herd even gave up a key kickoff return for a touchdown at EKU, as I recall, and also lost to Ohio.
Herd fans weren't sure about a second-year head coach (George Chaump) who came from Indiana (Pa.), and were cautious about their optimism after years of heartbreaking defeats.As said old-school Herd fans know, Petersen (now the Herd's QB coach) hit Keith Baxter (father of a Herd cornerback of the same name) with a Hail Mary touchdown to win at Louisville, sparking a turnaround and a 7-4 regular-season record. (I still rank that as the second-greatest play in MU history.)Including Louisville, the Herd's final six opponents were less than formidable, save for Appalachian State. The combined regular-season record of that sextet was 31-34-1.Well, that's frightening.Today, the Herd has the No. 3 passing yardage leader in Rakeem Cato, but has a defense ranked 105th in total yardage. Special teams are suspect, defensive coordinator Chris Rippon is catching heat and fans are divided over head coach Doc Holliday, who also drove Interstate 79 south en route to Huntington. Eight years of painful losses, dating back to Akron in 2004, keep fans grumpy.The Herd is 2-4 (1-1 Conference USA) entering an open week, but the season is hardly lost. Keep this in mind: The combined record of MU's conquerors is 19-3, with West Virginia and Ohio still undefeated.
The combined record of the Herd's second-half foes is not so shiny - 10-21. Southern Mississippi is expected to be a shocking 0-6 when Marshall comes calling Oct. 20; Central Florida, much like Appalachian State back in the day, is easily the strongest of the six. As similar as the history is, the Herd cannot repeat it unless most or all of the following happen:Defense improves in all areas, from tackling to forcing turnovers to pass rush to ... you name it.
The Herd's nation-low scoring average against (44.5) is skewed by five non-offensive touchdowns. But the Herd is 115th in sacks (four), 106th in turnovers gained (five), 112th in rushing defense (229) and 95th in pass efficiency defense.This unit does not have to magically turn into Alabama, but any improvement will help. Shoot, the Herd defense gave up 31 points and 340 total yards against Tulsa, and I would bank on that every time.
An exciting receiving corps needs to become other-worldly.
We saw some of that Saturday against Tulsa. Antavious Wilson (seven catches, 123 yards) is back to his 2009 form, making some super catches. Aaron Dobson (10-128) emerged from a tough game at Purdue, thriving when Tulsa took away Tommy Shuler. Question: Could Dobson have held onto the potential game-tying touchdown throw, knocked away by Lowell Rose?If Dobson and Wilson want to build their legacy, they need a big game against UCF, which typically features C-USA's best secondary.Special teams must improve, especially on returns.
It has been a tough year for Andre Snipes-Booker, who is averaging barely 20 yards a kickoff return and 5.8 yards a punt return. Under the new, lousy kickoff rules, Marshall does better taking a touchback - Snipes-Booker has failed to reach the 25-yard line on 8 of 24 kickoff returns.So should Snipes-Booker be replaced? Travon Van, moved recently to cornerback and not getting any snaps, has fresh legs.
Then again, would it matter? Is the kickoff team ineffective?History won't help this team, but there is one absolutely correct parallel between 1987 and 2012: Both squads were part football team, part amusement park thrill ride. So the best advice I can give is this: Hop in the car, fasten your seat belt tightly and keep your hands in the car.nn
At the halfway pole, some Herd statistics of note:Cato is 218 of 312 (69.9 percent) for 2,311 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. Shuler remains the top receiver with 58 receptions for 582 yards; Dobson has 42 catches for 483 with just two TDs. Gator Hoskins caught his seventh TD - a 72-yarder that is MU's season-long play.Safeties Dominick LeGrande (69) and Okechukwu Okoroha (59) lead the team in tackles by a fair margin, with defensive end Alex Bazzie third at 47.Marshall ran 90 plays from scrimmage against Tulsa, putting its average at an even 92 per game.With three more turnovers, the Herd's margin fell to minus-7.Marshall went 13 of 19 on third down, increasing its season total to 60 of 106 (56.6 percent). It held Tulsa to 5 of 14, lowering the defensive conversion rate to 44 of 91 (48.4 percent).Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.