Gaffes on special teams have hurt Thundering Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - As coach Doc Holliday points out, not one single play can be blamed for each of Marshall's three losses.
But those gaffes in the kicking game stick out like Pinocchio's nose during a head cold. Take those blocked punts against Virginia Tech and Middle Tennessee - both were returned for touchdowns in an overtime loss and a two-point setback.
In the MTSU game, punter Tyler Williams compounded that by falling to a knee to gather up a snap, thus taking a 14-yard loss on fourth down. The Blue Raiders settled for a field goal, but led 38-28 and made Marshall's comeback try a bit more difficult.
"That's something we do every day and that's something that we have to get corrected, because when you get punts blocked then you get beat," Holliday said. "Unfortunately, we've shown that this year. That's not the reason we have been beat, but it's one of the reasons.
"You eliminate those and who knows? We can't let that happen. It's unacceptable."
No, it hasn't been an easy year for the MU punt team. Williams is still having a solid year, averaging 42.0 yards per boot. That ranks third in Conference USA, but he is down 3.2 yards per attempt from his freshman year. Five of his 27 punts have gone 50 yards or more, but he had 13 in 43 attempts last year.
The Fort Wayne, Ind., native said the recent stretch of inactivity - the Herd played its last three games over a 32-day span - helped him out and he's ready for better results.
"My back's still a little here and there, but it's good," he said. "It doesn't affect me too much anymore. I just have to stretch a lot more and take care of it running more, keep my body in shape and take care of my back. Everything else kind of revolves around your back."
The coverage hasn't always been great on that unit, either. Including the two blocks, which were returned just 3 and 11 yards, foes average 11.9 yards over 14 runbacks. Much of that came on a 48-yard runback by Ohio's Travis Carrie that set up a Bobcats field goal.
Oh yes, the Bobcats won by three - and that doesn't factor in Steward Butler's fumbled kickoff, which Ohio recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
The kicking units haven't been all bad; far from it. Deandre Reaves' 81-yard kickoff return at MTSU triggered the Herd's comeback from that 38-28 deficit, and he is averaging 26 yards a runback since replacing Butler. Devon "Moo Moo" Smith owns a 77-yard punt return TD, which helped MU beat Florida Atlantic by a point.
On the kickoff front, the Herd is allowing just 20.7 yards a return - when opponents are allowed to bring it out. Place-kicker Amareto Curraj's 45 touchbacks have limited the Herd to covering 16 kickoffs.
The place-kicking is going reasonably well, Justin Haig's blocked field-goal try at Virginia Tech notwithstanding. Haig has hit all 35 of his extra points and is 7 of 10 at field goals with a long of 41 yards. On the other side, James Rouse has blocked a kick.
But Holliday knows that with five games remaining in the regular season, all special units must get sharper. He divides those duties among his staff, save for offensive coordinator Bill Legg, offensive lineman Alex Mirabal and defensive line coach J.C. Price.
"We all coach it," Holliday said. "Todd Hartley, Adam Fuller and myself. All the coaches coach; we have different positions on different teams. I don't have, per se, a special-teams coordinator, but we have guys that coach all the different [units] that work hard.
"They're getting coached. Evidently, we've got to do a better job of getting that done, because the product you see out there didn't happen [at MTSU], so that's on us, and that's important we get it fixed."
Williams said his unit has made its blocking adjustments, and expects all his punts to sail cleanly through the skies the rest of the season.
"There were a couple of things. A guy just got through the line," Williams said. "It's kind of hard to explain because I'm not really a scheme guy. We got a punt block and we got it fixed, and we'll be good to go with weekend."
The Herd must also fix its rushing defense after giving up 308 yards on 60 carries at MTSU. Holliday said the Herd merely whiffed on fundamentals on a few plays, leading to big runs.
"They lost contain three times, and that's three too many," he said. "There's no doubt we've got to do a great job putting the edge on the defense.
"We had about eight or nine plays that resulted in the majority of that yardage they gained in those 60 rushes."
The Blue Raiders had 11 rushes of 8 or more yards, totaling 170 yard of those 308 yards.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.