TULSA, Okla. - Defending Conference USA champion Tulsa isn't defending much these days, except its pride.And its home turf. For a Marshall team playing for high stakes, that's a problem - it is not one of the great road warriors of college football.When the game kicks off at 7:30.EST tonight at H.A. Chapman Stadium, the Thundering Herd (6-3, 4-1) is comfortably favored over the Golden Hurricane (2-7, 1-4). That doesn't make sense in a rivalry that is 4-0 in the other direction, but Tulsa's slide to sixth place in the West Division doesn't make sense, either.What does make sense, to the frustration of the Herd camp, is MU's continued road woes. Entering this season, the Herd was 10-39 in all road games (excluding bowls), 9-23 in league road contests.
The pattern has continued this season, in the strangest ways.Ohio? A fumbled kickoff for a Bobcat touchdown, and a funky shovel pass to keep a drive alive killed the Herd.Virginia Tech? It may have been the Herd's best ga]me of the season, but a triple-overtime loss nonetheless.Middle Tennessee? The Herd defense went on siesta and the Blue Raiders won on the final play.Florida Atlantic? A win but a rally from two scores down, finishing with a last-play field goal.The Herd has played much better in its home games, even considering the quality of competition - remember, two probable 0-12 teams have visited Huntington. On the other hand, the Herd has played three bowl-eligible teams on the road, with Florida Atlantic expected to win out for a 6-6 record.The Herd's goal tonight is to narrow the gap between the quality of home and road play."I think we lose energy," said tight end Gator Hoskins. "I mean, the fans bring a lot of energy [and we're] coming out and starting fast. You play in front of the home fans and they're really behind you. You get on the road, there's a lot of boos, quiet at times."We've just got to come out of there and start fast, be ready to go."The last time the Herd played at Tulsa was two years ago, and that 59-17 loss was probably one of MU's worst in modern times. Using a stiff wind to its advantage, the Golden Hurricane took a 14-0 lead in the first five minutes, recovered a kickoff at the Marshall 16-yard line late in the half and cashed in for a 42-3 lead.Last year in Huntington, the Hurricane twice stopped the Herd on fourth down inside the 20 to escape with a 45-38 win.
Several of the Herd's tormentors are still around, notably Trey Watts. The son of former Oklahoma quarterback and former congressman J.C. Watts ripped up the Herd for 111 rushing yards and a 95-yard kickoff return last year.This year, his load is greater than ever - he has rushed for 857 yards, leads the team in receptions with 41, is the primary punt returner (long of 77 yards) and shares kickoff return duties. He has 1,535 all-purpose yards, 5,724 for his career, No. 2 on Tulsa's all-time list."He's utilized a little like Reggie Bush," said Chuck Heater, MU's defensive coordinator. "He's not quite that kind of guy in space, but they utilize him some that way. A good runner, a running back. His dad's a tremendous person and he comes from good stock."Defensively, Shawn Jackson is back, and he's still a beast. Entering his team-high 47th game, the 6-foot-2, 255-pounder is the program's all-time leader in tackles for loss (50) and sacks (20.5). He anchors a defense that was affected early by the loss of safety Demarco Nelson to academics, and has dropped from first in total defense in 2012 to ninth.Rakeem Cato and the Herd may enjoy passing success tonight - Cato threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns in last year's game - but Marshall likely won't duplicate its 381 rushing yards of the Alabama-Birmingham game."They're a big, strong, very physical front," Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg said. "They've got very big, strong, physical linebackers. The coverage concepts allow the safeties to get involved in run support. You could potentially see nine guys attacking the line of scrimmage on a run play."
Marshall has a monstrous advantage in quarterbacking, as Tulsa starts redshirt freshman Dane Evans for the third time. The Herd's offensive line is up to the challenge physically, and is improved for the most part on the defensive side. Kick return and coverage units have played pretty well, though the field goal and punt teams are shaky.The Herd carries the momentum of two straight routs. Tulsa just lost its seventh game, a development nobody saw coming."You know, I think it really is just a huge combination," said TU coach Bill Blankenship. "We were going to be really young on defense; we knew that. We did lose a couple of starters to eligibility issues to start the season. Went to play what I think is a really good Bowling Green team on the road and really got it handed to us in the second half after we made some critical mistakes."Offensively, we struggled to find continuity moving the football. We have a couple of really good running backs from a year ago [Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas], but we were reloading in our offensive line, and lost our No. 1 receiver [Keyarris Garrett] in our second ball game."I can't put my finger on one thing, by any stretch, but it's just a year where the averages have caught up to us."But the Golden Hurricane is a pride-filled program that likely will play hard at home on a Thursday night. The last time Marshall played on a Thursday night was that loss to Middle Tennessee.The road may be the No. 1 obstacle for the Herd, which is playing to stay virtually tied with East Carolina in the East Divison race."You go on the road, that's a little more of a challenge, for whatever reason," said Heater. "That's the next step - if you're a good football team, that's not a big deal. When you make that turn, you find a way to win on the road and you play well on the road."That's the next step for us, quite frankly."Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.