CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- SOMEWHERE, I forget where, I posed the question about Marshall's kicking game: Which would come first, the Thundering Herd's third touchback of the year or the Pittsburgh Pirates' 82nd victory?Thanks to the lively leg of freshman Amareto Curraj, it was the former, knocking his third home Saturday night before the Bucs raised the Jolly Roger on win No. 79. For good measure, he booted three more, giving him six.In a night full of good news for the Herd in its 52-14 pummeling of Miami (Ohio), this was as big as any: The touchback has arrived at Third Avenue and 20th Street.It came a year late, a year after the NCAA's unnecessary move to make football a safer but duller sport. Now, kickoff strategy is simple: Tell your kicker to blast the ball 70 yards, then send your defense out to the 25-yard line.Curraj, a Tampa, Fla., native, did it six times in eight tries. Last year's Herd kickers, Justin Haig and Trent Martin, did it six times in 83 tries. (A few of us have cited a figure of three, which was the conference-games mark. There was one touchback in the season's final seven games.)"You're the third to tell me," Curraj told me after the game. "It's a great feeling. I didn't know that at all. Now that you told me, it's even better to know. I'm glad I can do what I came here to do."Curraj didn't take the game's first kickoff, which came after Marshall won the toss and deferred (c'mon, man!). Coach Doc Holliday sent out Haig shortly after 7 p.m., then he used Curraj the rest of the night."I was afraid if he took the first one, he would kick it in the [sideline] stands," Holliday said. "You know what? I probably out-thought ... I probably would have been fine. He'd probably kick it out of the end zone. These good kickers, they don't worry about a whole lot and I think he's one of those guys."
nnSo many observations, so little time. Here goes: The best gauge of the Herd's defense Saturday: Seven three-and-outs.The ripple effect was unbelievable. First, it allowed Marshall to dominate in scrimmage plays, 94-57. The Herd's deeper defense was fresh and Miami's defense turned to mush.The latter was apparent five minutes into the second half, when the RedHawks called a timeout. With Marshall on their 19-yard line and the score 21-14, an adjustment was in order, but I think that timeout was more about fatigue.The RedHawks had just defended the Herd's 16th play in those five minutes, sandwiched around a three-and-out, and they had to be bushed. That timeout didn't do much, as the Herd ran 11 of the next 14 snaps and took a 35-14 lead.The Herd forced 28 three-and-outs last year, 23 against FBS foes. There were none against West Virginia and Rice; one each against Central Florida, Alabama-Birmingham and East Carolina. Those five teams ran up 277 points, and four won.
MU's strength and conditioning program is (still) pretty good under Scott Sinclair. Just ask center Chris Jasperse."It made us stronger in the fourth quarter, the third quarter," said center Chris Jasperse. "We just worked as hard as we could, and tried to move them, dominate in the end, that's what we tried to do."Cato's progress in the weight room has given him more speed and more confidence when he decides to take off. He gained 59 net yards on nine carries, five of which gained first downs.That can and should discourage defenses from dropping eight defenders.By the way, previous MU strength coach Joe Miday is doing pretty well in his new gig. I'm guessing he had something to do with this score: Western Kentucky 35, Kentucky 26. Does Cato have the most awkward quarterback slide in the game, or what?
Not to slight a long list of effective defenders, but I think we're finding out about the real Jermaine Holmes. Of his eight tackles, four were solo - and violent. And props to his tackles for helping him spring loose for three tackles for loss. More of that coming, I'm sure. All personnel considered, Devon "Moo Moo" Smith belongs at "X" receiver. So he's not a 6-foot-3 guy who can win a "jump ball." So what? When you have wheels like that, you'll do fine, as seen on the 54-yard bomb he caught for a TD. The issue was long decided when Raheem Waiters scored on a "pick-six," but it gives the Herd hope of turning around another bad statistic of 2012 - being outdone on non-offensive "Beamerball" touchdowns, 9-2. No, the Herd didn't get "robbed" of a D.J. Hunter return of a fumble. In the pressbox, we only wondered why it took the replay booth so long to render a decision. Perhaps a bathroom break was involved. Roasted Redshirt Dept.: From the participation report, only four true freshmen played: safety Michael Johnson, Curraj, center Michael Selby and defensive tackle Josh Brown. Memo to the rest of Conference USA: Feel free to participate.Marshall's performance was the league's best. North Texas won 40-6 over Idaho and Texas-San Antonio downed New Mexico 21-13, but Miami is better than the Vandals and the Lobos.I'm giving East Carolina some leeway in its 52-38 win over Old Dominion, because Monarchs quarterback Taylor Heinicke is a stud. (Marshall will not have to face him next year.)Middle Tennessee and Tulane disposed of FCS foes, but Southern Mississippi did not, losing its 13th straight game 22-15 to ... Texas State? Coach Dennis Franchione's Bobcats forced six turnovers to steal one in Hattiesburg.Rice looked as if it may win C-USA's West Division by default, even though it lost to Texas A&M 42-31. The Owls were down 28-21 to the Aggies, who welcomed megapunk Johnny Manziel back at halftime and dominated down the stretch.The rest was carnage. UAB came from ahead to lose to Troy in overtime, Louisiana Tech was run over by North Carolina State 40-14, Florida International trailed Maryland 40-10 at halftime, Florida Atlantic spiked the ball on fourth down against Miami (Fla.) and consensus league favorite Tulsa got drubbed 34-7 at Bowling Green.What up with that, Tulsa?Upon further examination, this team has offensive line has problems - that backfield is a whole lot better than 2.4 yards per carry. That didn't much help quarterback Cody Green, who wasn't accurate when he wasn't getting chased, either.Then the Golden Hurricane committed special-teams mishaps that further prove that Doyt Perry Stadium is haunted. A failed fake punt and a fumbled punt by Trey Watts led to two short-field scores, then BG scored on a punt return. The defense had trouble against the run, but gave up only 13 points through three quarters.Don't get too excited, Herd fans: Tulsa has a long time to fix things, and good people to do it. I'm not overjoyed with the Herd playing Gardner-Webb at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, but the Runnin' Bulldogs did beat Furman 28-21 on Saturday. The Purple Pals are 14-20 this decade, but that result should please Herd fans.G-W outgained Furman 434-213, but still had to rally from a 21-7 deficit.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.