Dual-threat quarterback Jaquez Johnson leads Florida Atlantic into today's game against Marshall.
BOCA RATON, Fla. - For the next test of Marshall's expected role of contender in the new Conference USA, it's time for another journey to Florida.
Had the wide-reaching tentacles of conference realignment not plucked Central Florida out of the league, the Thundering Herd could be try, try, trying again to win in the Knights' bouncy Orlando home.
Instead, the Herd is taking its Sunshine State show farther south, taking on C-USA newbie Florida Atlantic at 5 p.m. today at the smaller FAU Stadium. Fox College Sports Atlantic (Suddenlink digital 509) is carrying the action.
It's the first of two trips to south Florida for the Herd, followed by a Nov. 23 trip to Miami-based Florida International. Neither team carried much respect in the C-USA coaches' preseason poll, with FAU ranked sixth and FIU seventh of seven teams in the East Division.
But FAU, weathering a first half with five of six games on the road, has the full respect of Marshall (3-2, 1-0 C-USA). The Owls are a few plays from a much better record, even reversing its 2-4, 1-3 mark. Looking at their schedule, a win today gives them a legitimate chance at a bowl game.
"If you look at FAU and what they've done, they are a very dangerous team," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "They've gone on the road and beaten South Florida, who just went up to Cincinnati and beat Cincinnati this last weekend. They also went on the road and beat UAB and got a road victory. That's two great road wins for them and they also took Rice to the wire and did that without their quarterback.
"Any time you are located in Boca Raton, Florida, and [have] a brand new stadium and a great school, you are going to have players. There are a lot of players around there. They are very athletic and FAU is second in Conference USA in total defense. They run extremely well."
If the Herd wants to join the East Division race - and come closer to locking up a bowl berth early for a change - it must win this game, no matter how far coach Carl Pelini's FAU team has progressed.
And the Herd must begin the reversal of its 9-23 C-USA road record under the 2005-12 alignment. If indeed that history is irrelevant, this Marshall team must make it so.
If this MU team is to be the best in a decade, it must win road games against less-heralded opponents. If the new C-USA is weaker, as skeptics charge, the Herd must appear to be stronger.
It doesn't really matter if FAU is a few plays from being 3-1 in the league. Nor that Owls quarterback Jaquez Johnson is making his case to be among the league's best. If this Herd team wants to have a big season, it must win a game such as this.
The tangible factors aren't hard to define. They include:
Improving the running game and stopping the run.
The Herd is fourth in C-USA in rushing, but its 180 yards per game are still distorted by those opening walkovers against Miami (Ohio) and Gardner-Webb. Against Ohio, Virginia Tech and Texas-San Antonio, the Herd is grinding out 134 yards per game, but just 3.1 per carry. Eleven sacks help depress those numbers.
But the Herd showed it can close out a game on the ground, doing so in a 6-minute drive late in the UTSA game. The offensive line, playing only six men, picked up the pace.
"Our line, they get better as the game goes on," said Herd running back Essray Taliaferro. "They get a better feel for the game. Also, a lot of this goes to [strength and conditioning] coach [Scott] Sinclair's workout regimen."
FAU is coming off its first-ever game with two 100-yard rushers, Jonathan Wallace (117) and Johnson, who helped the Owls rush for a season-high 280 yards against Alabama-Birmingham.
Keeping Johnson, not to mention talented receivers such as William Dukes, under control.
The Herd defended Ohio's Tyler Tettleton and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas reasonably well, but gave up a few critical plays to both. But last week, UTSA quarterback Eric Soza was rendered ineffective and frustrated and couldn't leave Huntington quickly enough.
For the combination of slickness and power, Johnson is right up there. He will test Marshall's new reputation as a team adept at tackling.
"Athletic. If you have an athletic quarterback, that opens up room for the other athletes around him, if you cannot contain him," said defensive end Alex Bazzie. "We're going to put a lot of emphasis on containing him, making him uncomfortable, not allowing him to make the throws he wants to throw and, first of all, stopping the run."
As always, the intangibles are trickier to predict.
For example, will the Herd's south Florida contingent put its collective best foot forward, or will those players press and make mistakes? The 2011 trip to UCF was an ugly experience for Sunshine State natives, particularly quarterback Rakeem Cato.
Then again, that 16-6 loss may have imparted a hard, unforgettable lesson.
"Fortunately we have some mature players," Holliday said. "These kids have all been here and they are starting to mature. Rakeem Cato is one that has matured a bunch. We have some leadership on the team from our Florida guys and from guys from other places. We have to make sure it is handled properly."
Can this Marshall team string together two conference wins in a row? Remember, that hasn't happened since the end of 2011, when the Herd rallied to beat Memphis and East Carolina to salvage a bowl bid.
This MU team will not need to salvage anything, if it lives up to expectations. That includes a win today as a double-digit road favorite, no matter how spirited FAU may play.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.