BEFORE MARSHALL'S game Saturday against the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I was told Mark Snyder paid a visit to the Thundering Herd's team hotel.Makes sense. The former MU head coach is defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, which played at Alabama. When your team travels to Alabama, it likely will stay in Birmingham, roughly 55 miles northeast of Tuscaloosa. The Aggies' hotel was close to the Herd's hotel.When I tweeted that little tidbit, the jokes flew. Among them was the almost-mandatory blast about running a reverse from the 6-yard line.To refresh your memory, that was the play Snyder's offensive coordinator, John Shannon, had scripted for the Herd's first scrimmage down in a 2008 debacle. Darius Passmore was tripped about 6 yards deep in the end zone for a safety, a wretched start in a game the Herd lost 23-21.The venue? Legion Field, with UAB the host team.Talk about your eerie parallels. That had been the last time Snyder coached in the state of Alabama, and he did much better this time as his Aggies downed No. 1 Alabama, in a game played at roughly the same time as Marshall-UAB.The 2008 mess at UAB was one of Snyder's most inexcusable losses, and it was the first time I began to consider the Snyder era a lost cause. And now, I am starting to wonder about the Doc Holliday regime.Coaches tend to get blamed for every loss and even for close wins, but the Herd clearly got outwitted by UAB's coaches in this one.As reported in the Birmingham News, UAB coach Garrick McGee detailed how his team switched to a three-man front and dropped eight defenders into pass coverage, a look the Blazers had used sparingly in the previous nine games.
Accordingly, Marshall and quarterback Rakeem Cato favored the run in the first half, with 28 attempts vs. 13 passes. When you consider the three sacks to be pass calls and throw out a kneel-down at the end of the half, the ratio is 24-16. That would have been nice if the Herd could have managed more than 2.43 yards per carry. And that has me muttering: Were the Blazers really dropping eight on every play?"Every play, from the first play to the last play," Cato said. "I never saw it before, ever."Fine, but not all Blazers stayed back long on every play. Of Cato's three sacks, one came from a cornerback and another from "Jack" linebacker Chris Rabb. The other "Jack," Greg Irvin had 21/2 tackles for loss.And middle linebacker Marvin Burdette had 17 tackles, and they didn't come from tackling somebody from behind. The school's newest all-time leading tackler was involved in one tackle for loss, and half his 14 stops through three quarters held the Herd to 3 or fewer yards.
Of the Herd's first nine possessions, eight were futile and the other was a 2-yard touchdown drive. With 5:23 left in the third quarter, necessity forced the Herd into throwing and, hey, it worked. In those final 20 minutes, Cato was 13 of 18 for 156 yards.
Cato finished with a 214 passing yards and the team gained 337 total, both season lows. This coming against a defense that, even with Burdette, has been shredded several times."It took us longer than it should have to adjust to that," said tackle Jordan Jeffries. "They did drop eight, and then we run the ball and rushing three turned into blocking six or seven or eight. We came in and made adjustments at halftime, but we just dug ourselves too big a hole [31-7] to come out of."If an offense needs a half and then some to adjust to defensive wrinkles, I'm guessing the coaches lost the chess match, much like Snyder's staff lost it in the 2008 UAB game.But that is tolerable compared to the Herd's general flatness. Late in the first half, I thought I saw about five dozen white-clad zombies on the far sideline. The body language spoke volumes.To which I ask: How does that happen?This wasn't a throwaway game. A win would have put the Herd in good position to take another game and land in a bowl. But now the Herd must win twice, including the season finale at East Carolina, Conference USA's third-best team.
The Herd rallied from 4-6 last season, but I don't think Marshall fans are clinging to optimism on that note. The fan base was deflated by the 54-17 loss Oct. 27 against Central Florida, and surely isn't happier now.Here's the little bit of good news I can offer: The Herd (4-6, 3-3) faces Houston (4-6, 3-3) at noon Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, and these are not the same Cougars that flogged MU 63-28 a year ago. On Saturday, they were hammered 41-7 by visiting Tulsa, getting outgained 505-262.With Case Keenum long gone, Houston leads the league with 31 turnovers, nine coming in a 72-42 loss at Southern Methodist. The Cougars have yielded 196 points in their last four games.Historically, teams from Texas are 0-for-8 in Huntington. Houston tumbled hard in 2008, losing 37-23 in a game that wasn't that close. Marshall led 37-9 after three quarters.When did that game fall on MU's schedule? Right after the loss to UAB, funny enough. Is that a good omen for this Herd team?After the most inexcusable loss in his 35-game tenure, Holliday needs a good omen.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.