TAMPA, Florida — Ending the season with a loss in a bowl game is something that Marshall’s football team and coach Doc Holliday had never experienced during Holliday’s tenure with the Thundering Herd.
However, the way Marshall’s 48-25 loss to UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl came about may have provided the signature exclamation point on the season. Marshall let opportunity after opportunity slip through its fingers against the Knights.
“We dug ourselves a hole there in the first half and we had a hard time getting out of it,” Holliday said.
Letting opportunities slip out of reach proved to be a theme of the 2019 season as Marshall repeatedly hurt itself with self-inflicted wounds.
It’s the only way to explain a team that topped the two top Conference USA East Division contenders in Florida Atlantic and FIU, but still found itself outside of the Conference USA championship game.
Marshall dug itself a hole in conference play early with an inexplicable loss to Middle Tennessee.
The Herd had nearly 600 yards of offense, but did not score an offensive point while turning the ball over four times and having two more turnovers on downs in a 24-13 loss.
That loss gave Marshall no room for error for the remainder of the division race, which became magnified late in the season.
Things appeared to be righted when Marshall went down to Florida Atlantic and grabbed control of the East Division with a win over the Owls.
Yet those hopes went by the wayside when Marshall went to Charlotte and struggled to another 24-13 loss.
While Marshall got a 30-27 win over FIU in the season-finale to put pressure on the Owls, Florida Atlantic took care of business when it had to and rode a win over Southern Miss into the Conference USA title game, which the Owls won handily in a 49-6 victory over UAB.
Florida Atlantic’s title showed one rather damning trait about Marshall’s 2019 team — the group had enough talent to defeat anyone within Conference USA. Such was shown with running back Brenden Knox winning the Conference USA Most Valuable Player award and the Herd having the most first-team selections on the All-Conference USA team at season’s end.
Still, the team could not find the right ingredients to bring a championship back to Huntington for the first time since 2014.
Holliday has long said that championships are the expectation of his program. The lack of such in a year when the Herd was favored to take a title is nothing short of a disappointment, as fans voiced on social media following the disappointing loss to UCF.
Perhaps the longest look will come on the offensive side where — despite having Knox as the league’s MVP — Marshall did not produce consistently enough in the passing game to win some games. As it typical with any team having offensive struggles, the long look starts at quarterback where sophomore Isaiah Green showed flashes at times, but was inconsistent and struggled mightily in inclement weather.
All three of Marshall’s final games came in the rain, and Green struggled to produce, completing under 50 percent of his passes in each of those contests while throwing two touchdowns with four interceptions. Green was 6 of 17 for 86 yards and two interceptions in the loss to Charlotte, 9 of 20 for 90 yards with a touchdown in the overtime win over FIU and 9 of 23 for 173 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in the loss to UCF.
With Green’s inconsistencies, there were questions on several occasions as to whether the team would give a longer look to senior graduate transfer Alex Thomson. He came to Marshall as a highly touted player and NFL draft prospect from Wagner College prior to his junior season. The Marshall staff opted to stick with Green through his struggles instead of bringing in Thomson for a look –- a decision that was magnified Monday when an injury briefly forced Green to the sidelines.
With Marshall trailing 21-0 and in need of a spark, Green was injured following a rush near midfield, forcing Thomson into action. The senior looked poised, completing a pair of passes to wide receiver Obi Obialo for first downs that moved Marshall inside the 10-yard line.
While the drive ended with Knox fumble at the 5-yard line, Thomson seemed to give the Herd offense a spark in the weather-hindered conditions. Yet he never saw the field again Monday.
Holliday was short when asked about whether there was thought to bring in Thomson to give the team a spark.
“No, there wasn’t,” Holliday said. “If there was, we would’ve done that.”
With Thomson now gone, the charge for Holliday will be whether to keep Green as the starter going into 2020 or open the quarterback competition, which could include former George Washington product Grant Wells, who was impressive during his first year with the Herd. Given Marshall’s early signing period class only including 15 of its 25 allotted signees, there is also the possibility of bringing in a quarterback to compete with Green, should the Herd staff decide to go that route.
With 2019 now complete and preparation for 2020 on the horizon, it is the charge of the staff to identifying the issues to solve Marshall’s difficulties in winning the East Division — whether personnel-related or within its own staff.
Holliday said following the game that it’s all about getting back to work and putting the necessary pieces in place.
“We just go back and go to work on Jan. 12 like we always do,” Holliday said. “We get back on the 12th, go to work on that Monday and work to get better.”
Knox, who was also the team’s MVP and became a captain in the early part of the season due to his demeanor and consistency, said that the results of 2019 and the loss to UCF in the bowl game add an edge to that offseason preparation.
“We’re competing for championships at the end of the day, so that’s all that’s going to be on our mind by the time we come back,” Knox said. “It’s a stepping stone from there on out. Just put this in the past and just build on that and grind toward a championship.”
The loss to UCF was the final stamp on a season that was set up as a barometer for where Marshall was within the Group of 5 realm.
Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick set up the 2019 schedule for such, opting to schedule three non-conference games against three teams in the upper tier of their respective conferences: Boise State from the Mountain West, Ohio from the Mid-American and Cincinnati from the American Athletic.
With Marshall losing by a combined score of 100-39 to its two American Athletic Conference opponents (Cincinnati and UCF), losing 14-7 and struggling mightily offensively in a loss at Boise State and winning a 33-31 home game over an Ohio team that also been disappointing by its own standards, it brought into light a fact that will stay with the Herd staff and players throughout the offseason.
Marshall is not at the championship level that Holliday has said is the standard and there is work to be done to push the Herd into that conversation.