HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - If Marshall properly handles visiting Alabama-Birmingham today, as is widely expected, several objectives will be fulfilled. From a short-term perspective, bowl eligibility will be clinched, and done so with three games left in the regular season. The last time that happened was 2003, when bowls were not as plentiful, Marshall resided in the Mid-American Conference and was shut out at 8-4. More important, the Thundering Herd (5-3, 3-1 Conference USA) would remain in the running for the East Divison title, likely staying a half-game behind East Carolina. The Pirates play at home against Tulsa, long removed and fallen from its role as a preseason favorite. Finally, the Herd needs to wash away the memory of its most unexpected loss of 2012, a demoralizing 38-31 setback at UAB. That loss ultimately cost MU a bowl berth and a losing season. Marshall is heavily favored to turn the tables today at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Kickoff is at noon, with WCHS, Channel 8 airing the contest in the Charleston-Huntington market. "We had a chip on our shoulders coming into the season," said Herd defensive end Alex Bazzie. "It wasn't anything against any of our opponents, it was a chip on our shoulder because we knew we messed ourselves up last year. "We had a lot going for us and we didn't put ourselves in the right position. We've got a chip on our shoulder in that when we have an opportunity to put ourselves into a victory situation, we need to execute and excel. We played them tough, but didn't finish." Yes, this Herd team must finish, as it has in three of four conference games, but not in its three losses. It learned in a loss at Middle Tennessee that nothing should be taken for granted, and applied those lessons last week in disposing of Southern Mississippi. Whether UAB (2-6, 1-3) competes as well as it did last year remains to be seen. The Blazers are 4-20 on the road since 2010, with their last trip ending in a 52-31 loss at Texas-San Antonio two weeks ago. The Roadrunners led 45-10 early in the third quarter. Similarly, Marshall has dominated the Blazers in the rivalry's last two games at Huntington in 2009 and 2011. The formula for a victory would be seen last week against Southern Miss, though UAB should provide tougher competition. Marshall ran better, and should benefit from a healthier Kevin Grooms. He has fought through a high ankle sprain and seemed to finally be at full-tilt when he broke off a 75-yard TD run last week. "That felt good to have a run that I'm used to doing," Grooms said this week. "I've still got to keep working and keep [undergoing] treatment, get it back to the strength I need and go from there." Quarterback Rakeem Cato is coming off a player-of-the-week performance and is running the offense better than he ever has. His outside receivers got back in the game last week, catching 10 passes and scoring three times - Davonte Allen showed another flash of brilliance with two TDs. The Herd defense is still stinging from giving up 51 points at MTSU, and that was two games ago. Those players took it out on Southern Miss and are looking to continue the trend against the Blazers. "It's a whole new defense this year," said linebacker Evan McKelvey. "They're coming on our turf. As a captain of the defense [he served last week], I don't think I'm going to let [big UAB gains] happen. It doesn't matter who's running the ball, whoever comes to the line of scrimmage, we're going to stop them." The Blazers are looking to punish right back, whether with big running backs Darrin Reaves and freshman Jordan Howard, or with the passing game. Last week's nine-pass game against MTSU was an extreme example; the Blazers still average close to 30 passes a game. Speedster Jamarcus Nelson is an obvious emphasis. "Any given Saturday, he's the fastest guy on the field," said tight end Kennard Backman. Still, Marshall is the big favorite and UAB is the underdog. Herd players want to uphold their role before the home fans.
Two promotions at the stadium today:
The Marshall Athletics Student-Athlete Advisory Committee is conducting its annual canned food drive this week, and the football game is a dropping-off point. Donations are taken at Gate A.
A West Virginia native and wounded combat veteran will be awarded a mortgage-free house following the national anthem before the game.
Retired Corporal Anton Slobodnik of Harpers Ferry was injured in Iraq on two different occasions in combat operations, winning two Purple Hearts and a long list of other military awards.
The Military Warriors Support Foundation, along with Ticketmaster and Chase Bank, have teamed with MU to recognize Slobodnik, his wife Diane and his three children, and fund the house.
Reach Doug Smock at 3040-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.