Southern Mississippi coach Ellis Johnson discusses strategy with quarterback Anthony Alford.
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - Neither Marshall nor Southern Mississippi carry a good turnover margin coming into their Conference USA East Division showdown tonight.
The Thundering Herd is minus-7 for the season, with the Golden Eagles at minus-9, ranking 110th and 113th in the nation, respectively.
Both teams have to hang on to the ball, certainly. Fumbles and interceptions have led directly to four touchdowns against Marshall and one against Southern Miss, to say nothing of short-field drives.
But most of their problems lie in the inability to force turnovers. Marshall is 100th in takeaways in the FBS with just five; Southern Miss is 116th with four. In fact, only Buffalo trails the Eagles with three.
Texas Christian leads the category with 20. A telling number: The top 11 teams have a combined record of 59-11, and the list includes five undefeated teams, including Rutgers and Mississippi State.
Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson adequately summed up the effects of a takeaway drought, including one often-overlooked aspect - field position for the offense. In other words, the Herd and Eagles have not benefited from short-field drives.
Southern Miss has scored just two offensive touchdowns off drives of less than 50 yards, one off an interception and both in mop-up time at Western Kentucky. Marshall has done a little better, scoring five offensive touchdowns on drives of less than 50 yards.
But only one of those came off a turnover (three came off punts, one after a stoppage on downs). Another telling stat: Thanks in part to its lack of takeaways, Marshall has scored 22 of its 30 touchdowns on drives longer than 70 yards.
Which brings up another reason the Herd is averaging 558 total yards on offense: Necessity. Cato and company are having to go the length of the field to score.
One part of tonight's game that bears watching is the end of the first half. Both teams have been hurt by late scores.
Marshall has had the last score of the first half just once, in its last game against Tulsa. The Herd scored two touchdowns in the final 2:36, erasing a 17-3 deficit and tying the game before the half.
In the other five games, the opponent has scored last in the first half. The most painful was a 4-yard touchdown pass by Ohio with 49 seconds left, giving the Bobcats a 17-14 lead.
Southern Miss has been crushed by late first-half scores. In all six games, the Eagles' opponent has scored the last points of the half, and all have scored in the final 3:13.
In the last two games, Boise State scored with 6 seconds left for a 23-0 lead, and UCF had a TD run with 5 seconds left for a 17-7 lead, a margin Southern Miss spent the rest of the night trying to overcome.
Nebraska's 29-yard pass with 1:03 left stretched the Cornhuskers' lead to 28-17, and Western Kentucky's 36-yard strike with 3:13 left gave the Hilltoppers a 21-3 lead. Both turned into major routs.
Southern Miss has led twice at the half, but the late scores have sapped the Eagles' momentum. East Carolina hit a 54-yard field on the final play for a 7-3 halftime deficit, and then the Pirates erupted for three third-quarter touchdowns. Louisville scored late in the first half to cut the Southern Miss lead to 17-12, and the Cardinals finished their rally in the second half.
A warning to Herd fans: Just because you had the previous week off doesn't mean you'll magically play better football in the following game. MU has seemingly suffered the opposite effect.
Last year, the Herd had the first weekend in November off and went to Tulsa on Nov. 12 - and got splattered all over H.A. Chapman Stadium. The Golden Hurricane gained 682 total yards in a 59-17 rout, easily the Herd's worst game of the year.
Marshall hasn't had a full week off every year this century, owing to midweek games under previous television contracts. With a Tuesday or Wednesday game, a team will usually have a week-plus before and after, yielding maybe an extra day away from practice.
With a full week off, the Herd hasn't won the following game since 2003, when it lost to Troy State entering the bye and returned to beat Kent State. Four disasters have followed, including:
September 2005, when the Herd got an off week to get over its heartbreaking loss to Kansas State. When it returned, it "snapped" Central Florida's 17-game losing streak, falling 23-13.
October 2008, when the Herd got an off week after a stagnant in a 33-10 home loss to Cincinnati. What followed was even worse - a 23-21 loss at Alabama-Birmingham.
November 2009, when the Herd stewed for 13 days over its 21-20 collapse at UCF. On the 14th day, another painful loss followed, 27-20 to Southern Miss.
November 2011, the aforementioned Tulsa debacle. Here's the really painful aspect - Marshall swatted UAB 59-14 the Saturday before the bye week.
This is the first time Southern Miss has faced Marshall for its homecoming game, and the Herd faces some long historical odds there.
The Eagles are 56-19 in such games and have won 10 of the last 11. More impressive, the Eagles have scored 28 points or better in 13 of the last 15 homecomings, and 40 nine times in that stretch.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.