HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - As the curtain lifts on Marshall's ninth league season in Conference USA, the stage has a different feel.Take your pick. The expectations surrounding the Thundering Herd are a little higher than in previous years, what with returning league MVP, a veteran offensive line and a defense that appears to be substantially improved.That, and a league schedule that is different, for better or worse. After all, there are six new teams in the league, all coming from the lower-crust Sun Belt Conference or the football-defunct Western Athletic Conference.One isn't even a full Bowl Subdivision member, and that would be Texas-San Antonio. The still-reclassifying Roadrunners will be playing their 28th football game - ever, in any division - when they line up at Joan C. Edwards Stadium at 2 p.m. today.Sort of like Georgia State, right? A cakewalk?Almost certainly not, even on the Herd's homecoming afternoon.The Roadrunners (2-3, 1-0) were competitive for three quarters last week against Houston but, most important, they have a C-USA win and a lot of confidence."The coach [Larry Coker] has got them prepared, and they don't look like a first-year Conference USA team," said MU center Chris Jasperse. "They don't look young; they look like they've been in the league a couple of years, five years. They're doing a good job."
So that presents the first C-USA challenge for the Herd (2-2, 0-0), which took a tough-to-swallow two-game losing streak into an off week. The Herd is chasing several elusive milestones, which include:Never finishing better than 5-3 in conference games. And MU has accomplished that just once, in 2011.Not winning two C-USA games in a row since the end of that 2011 season. The Herd had done that only four times, including just two three-game winning streaks.Not really contending for an East Division title and a berth in the league championship game. The Herd was alive entering the final week of the 2011 season, but was eliminated before the opening kickoff against East Carolina.The program's first winning regular season since 2004, and the first eight-win season since 2003.
And so on."The leadership hasn't wavered. Their goals and their dreams haven't wavered whatsoever," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. "They're a team that likes each other, wants to be a good football team. Sometimes during an open date, you go out there in practice, and the kids don't want to be there. These kids wanted to be there, and wanted to get better."
Offensively, the Herd wants to get rid of the bad taste of not scoring in the final 39 minutes of regulation at Virginia Tech - plus three overtime possessions. The week off could help quarterback Rakeem Cato and the Herd's skill position players, such as returning running back Kevin Grooms. Or that offense could begin the game out of sync.Defensively, coordinator Chuck Heater's troops had enough homework to fill the two weeks' preparation, and then some. UTSA's veteran quarterback , Eric Soza, runs an offense that stretches and stretches the defense with speed options, quick routes and lots and lots of personnel.Holliday found one mitigating factor in all that."Thing they do, they substitute on just about every down, which allows the defense to substitute," Holliday said. "When they're running guys in there, then that umpire's got to stand over the ball and give us a chance to match their personnel. You have problems getting your packages in when people don't substitute."Both squads are trying to improve their special teams, or at least eliminate game-turning mistakes. Marshall has suffered a lost fumble on a kickoff and a blocked punt, both covering the margins of losses to Ohio and Virginia Tech. Against Houston, UTSA gave up a blocked field goal return for a TD that started the slide from a competitive game to a 59-28 rout.The result means Marshall isn't the only team looking for redemption before a warm homecoming crowd this afternoon. But that's not the Herd's worry as much as this is: starting the C-USA season the right way.
That's one thing that's not as elusive - believe it or not, the Herd has done that four of the last five years.nn
MU announced Friday that 20th Street will be closed from 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. today for the homecoming parade. West Lot parking permit holders can use 41/2 Alley, best accessed by 21st Street alongside McDonald's, or may enter from Third Avenue.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.