Friday, September 26, 2014

COLUMN: Marshall Football's Strength of Schedule Flew South for a Win

Marshall football is 4-0 for the first time since 1999 after running through its competition in non-conference play. However, Marshall still has yet to receive much credit for many of the team’s accomplishments through the first third of the season.

Marshall is the only team in FBS to score over 40 points in each of its first four games. Only Oregon was able to challenge Marshall in this category but fell two points shy in its 38-31 win over Washington State Saturday night.

The Herd is ranked sixth nationally and leads the Group of Five schools with a 29.3-point scoring margin.

Marshall’s defense has yet to surrender a touchdown in the first half this season while outscoring its opponents 103-6.

Falecia Collier/Collier Photography
But none of this really matters because the Herd’s strength of schedule is the fourth weakest of the 128 FBS schools according to Phil Steele’s 2014 College Football Strength of Schedule Rankings.

At least this is how many of the “experts” view the Herd.

The concept I do not understand is that Marshall is nationally ranked in many categories—something many said was a must for the Herd to overcome its weak schedule—but has yet to earn the respect it deserves.

After all, Marshall handpicked this weak schedule right?

Not so fast. Actually the Herd should not be in a bye week but rather finalizing game preparation for its upcoming opponent at Joan C. Edwards Stadium this Saturday. In case you have forgotten who the opponent was, allow me to refresh your memory.

It was the Louisville Cardinals. The 3-1 Louisville Cardinals of the ACC, which is a member of the “Power Five” conferences.

After Louisville bolted from the AAC to join the ACC, the Cardinals had to shuffle its schedule to accommodate its new conference opponents. Plus they picked up a game with Notre Dame in South Bend at the end of the season.

So who gets left standing on the outside looking in? Certainly not a Power Five conference team? And who would tell Norte Dame no? Louisville certainly would not turn down a trip to South Bend to come to Huntington.

Therefore, it’s the Herd left out of the conversation in a season that a game versus a Power Five team could have majorly helped Marshall’s strength of schedule.

Falecia Collier/Collier Photography
But for all the naysayers that disagree, I give you the numbers.

Louisville’s preseason strength of schedule was 68th while FIU’s was 90th and before you ask why is FIU relevant to this conversation I will explain. FIU played host to Louisville in Miami last week in a game that the Cardinals won 34-3. FIU also lost to Pitt 42-25 earlier this season.

So how does a FIU team that played FCS opponents in back-to-back weeks—one of which it lost to in Bethune-Cookman 14-12—have a strength of schedule that is 36 spots tougher than Marshall’s? FIU and Marshall play six common opponents during conference play with their non-commons not majorly swaying the final number. Scrambling to find a home game to replace the Louisville void, Marshall added FCS Rhode Island to eliminate having to play seven roads games rather than six.

With some simple addition, I have Marshall playing a non-conference schedule comprised of three FBS teams and one FCS team compared to FIU’s two and two respectively.

Maybe I am missing something but a game with Power Five team sure seems that it would have pushed the Herd forward several spots in the preseason poll not to mention how much a win over Louisville could have helped Marshall’s position in the national polls.

So why did Louisville pull the plug with Marshall? Why not FIU? The games were separated by only a week on the schedule but there is more than one reason why Louisville did not try to ditch FIU. 
Why would Louisville go to Miami to play in a stadium that may draw a crowd of 10,000 if FIU sells dollar holler seats for the game?

Two reasons, an easy win and recruitment.

FIU was a guaranteed win for Louisville which is a must under the new football playoff system. Power 5 teams have everything to lose and nothing to gain by playing a Group of 5 team, making Louisville’s decision to drop Marshall simple.

Not to mention that Marshall defeated Louisville 17-13 in 2011 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in a game that saw Rakeem Cato and Teddy Bridgewater running the offense for their teams. Cato is a Heisman Trophy candidate of one of the most prolific offenses in the nation while Bridgewater is taking snaps for the Minnesota Vikings.

Another contributing factor to keep FIU, recruitment. Of the 91 players on Louisville’s roster, 28 (15.4 percent) hail from the state of Florida, with 14 from Miami.

No one player on the Cardinals roster hail from West Virginia.

Seems like a win-win for the Cardinals. Unfortunately for Marshall, it is a victim of the system controlled by the Power Five conferences. Suddenly an invitation for Marshall men’s basketball to play at the YUM! Center in November seems like a bad parting gift after picking the wrong box on a game show.

The price certainly was not right for the Herd no matter how you slice it.

Just remember as you kick back to watch some college football this weekend, the Joan should be jumping with the roar of the crowd and chants of “We Are…Marshall” echoing throughout Huntington.

So the next time someone challenges Marshall’s weak schedule, feel free to drop them a reminder that its Power Five opponent in Louisville decided to fly south for an easy win. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Marshall vs Akron Recap 9/20/14

Akron, OH—Many college football experts predicted Marshall’s run at an undefeated season would come to an end in its visit to Akron.

Those predictions were zipped up after the Thundering Herd’s 48-17 win over the Zips at InfoCision Stadium Saturday afternoon.

"For the most part, I was pleased," Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. "We challenged our kids about being physical and being a complete team and being the best football team on the field today like we were a week ago and I thought we did that."

Tommy Shuler hauls in a catch. Photo by Falecia Collier.
For the first time since the 1938 season, Marshall has scored 40-plus points in each of its first four games moving to 4-0 heading into the bye week.  After Oregon failed to surpass the 40-point plateau Saturday night, Marshall was left as the lone team in FBS to score over 40 points in each of its first four games.

Marshall scored at will over the first 15 minutes of play as it rushed out to a 17-0 lead over Akron. Rakeem Cato scampered in from 11 yards for the game’s first score as the Heisman Trophy candidate orchestrated a 9-play 80-yard drive that consumed over three minutes off the clock. It was the first rushing touchdown allowed by the Zips this season.

Akron would have another first on the ensuing drive after Arnold Blackmon forced Hakeem Lawrence to fumble allowing Antavis Rowe to make the recovery setting up Marshall’s second drive. Justin Haig would connect on a 24-yard field goal to extend the lead to 10-0 after another long sustained drive by the Herd.

But it was the Herd’s defense that set the tone during the opening quarter of the game. Akron’s offense failed to move the ball after Pohl threw three consecutive incomplete passes. Forced to punt, Akron sent a short punt to Marshall that was downed at midfield and the Herd would need only three plays to find pay dirt once again.

Cato hit tight end Eric Frohnapfel on a 25-yard crossing route on first down and connected with Angelo Jean-Louis two plays later for a 24-yard touchdown. Cato ran his consecutive games throwing a touchdown streak to 36 on the scoring strike and stands only two games shy of tying current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson who set the record while playing at Wisconsin and N.C. State.

Devon Johnson stiff-arms the defense. Photo by Falecia Collier
Devon Johnson kicked off the second quarter for the Herd as the big man rumbled through three would-be tacklers for a 22-yard touchdown making it 24-0. Johnson said he simply followed Coach Barclay’s instructions of how to attack the defense.

“I knew I was going to have to bounce it outside because of the where the lineman was at,” said Johnson of his scoring run. “I knew if I cleared the Sam linebacker I was going to be one-on-one with the safety and that’s something Coach Barclay stresses is to win your one-on-one battles and that’s what I did.”

Akron compiled a 10-play drive that stalled out at the Marshall 7-yard line as the Zips settled for a 24-yard field goal that trimmed the Herd’s lead to 24-3.

Akron threatened to swing the momentum after Cato was picked off in the first pass of the ensuing drive but AJ Leggett would calm the surge as he picked off Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl in the end zone on fourth-and-goal. Although many say Leggett’s pick was a statement play in the game, he said he just played as he’s been coached.

“I was just trying to make a play on the ball,” Leggett said of his interception. “I saw the quarterback’s eyes and the receiver break so I just tried to make a play on the ball.”

Marshall took full advantage of the Akron turnover.

In a system nicknamed “Thunder and Lightning”—referring to Marshall’s running back stable of Johnson (Thunder) along with Remi Watson and Steward Butler (Lightning)—it was a shot of lightning from Watson that provided the longest rushing attempt since Daruis Marshall’s 80-yard game-winning touchdown run in 2009 home win over Bowling Green. The junior exploded into the Zips defense like a flash of lightning for an 80-yard touchdown run putting the Herd up 31-3.

“It’s just a feeling through the course of the game that you get in your body,” Watson said of his 80-yard touchdown run. “I was like just run, run just run and there was no way I was letting anybody chase me down.”

Watson, who turned in his first 100-yard rushing game of his career after finishing with 124 yards on only nine carries, picked up the slack from a missing Butler who was held out after a poor week of preparation.

"I didn't like the way he practiced the last week," Holliday said of Butler. "If I don't like the way he practices, he ain't going to play. We've got plenty of backs. If they practice well, they play. If they don't, they sit over by me and watch. He sat over by me and watched today."

While Akron entered the game boasting a powerful defense through its first two games, it was Marshall that dominated the first half. Although Akron held the ball for nearly 16 minutes in the first half, they were 1-of-8 on third down conversions and were held to only 197 total yards of offense.
Marshall's defense has yet to allow a first half TD.
Photo by Falecia Collier

“Coach Heater is always on us about defense winning games," Leggett said. "I feel like as long as our offense keeps putting up 40 points a game there’s no reason we should lose.”

Looking to erase a sloppy close to the first half, Marshall marched 75 yards in seven plays that ended with on a Cato 13-yard rushing touchdown—his second of the game—putting the Herd up 38-3.

“We talked at halftime about coming out taking the ball right down the field,” Holliday said. “We did that and it was good to see.”

Akron failed once again to mount any form of an offensive threat and would turn the ball over on downs to Marshall after Pohl’s fourth down conversion attempt fell short of its intended target.

With the game well at hand, Holliday turned to his youthful reserves in what would be Cato’s final offensive series of the game. Ryan Yurachek made back-to-back catches during the 13-play 6-minute and 30-second drive that finished with another Haig field goal, pushing the lead to 41-3.

Marshall running back Brandon Byrd carried the work load in the final quarter and added his contribution to the effort after breaking a 19-yard run that resulted in his first career touchdown as a member of the Herd.

With all the positive’s Marshall has produced through its first four games, there is one area Holliday said must be addressed immediately, penalties. The Herd was flagged 20 times for 188 yards tying a program record for most penalties in a contest.

“I’m anxious to see the tape,” Holliday said regarding his team being flagged 20 times. “I don’t think I’ve ever coached a team that had 20 penalties. If we are coached that bad that’s on me and I’ve got to get that corrected.”

The Herd will have two full weeks to prepare for its first opponent in conference play as the team has its first bye week of the season. Marshall travels to Old Dominion October 4th for its first game in CUSA play. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Marshall vs Ohio "Battle For the Bell" Preview

Heading into Saturday’s match-up between Marshall and Ohio at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, senior quarterback Rakeem Cato is trying to add one thing that has eluded him the past three seasons to his already impressive resume—a win over the Bobcats.

Headed into the 14th meeting of the “Battle for the Bell”, Ohio is in search of its fourth consecutive win over Marshall in a series the Herd leads 9-4.

“There's no doubt that it has been a big rivalry for a lot of years and they've won the last three,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. “Our kids understand that. Ohio has been the better team the last three years, as far as playing together as a team. We have to make sure, for us to have a chance on Saturday, that we are one heck of a football team in all three phases of the game. If we can do that, then we have a shot.”

Ohio head coach Frank Solich agreed with Holliday’s take on the history and rivalry of the game.

"They've been hard fought ball games, they've been games that, early on, we weren't able to find a way to win,” explained Solich. “I think the last so many years we've been able to find a way to win the game, but they've all been tremendously competitive football games for the most part. It's a rarity to not have it be a competitive game and it doesn't seem to matter where that game is played. We've played them once in a bowl game, we've played them at their place and here at our place, and those games are generally all extremely competitive football games. I think that is also something that leads to the rivalry in terms of the players, fans, and everybody getting excited about it. That's what this game is all about.

Ohio dominated Marshall in 2011 with a 44-7 beat down in Athens in a game that Cato was picked four times.  Marshall’s defense was befuddled by Ohio’s offense led by Tyler Tettleton as the Bobcats held the ball for over 36 minutes while totally 559 yards of total offense and converting third down 8-of-16 tries. It was the worst lost to Ohio since a 48-8 drubbing in Athens during the 1968 season.

Ohio visited Huntington in 2012 and found itself trailing 14-0 after one quarter. However, Tettleton calming orchestrated another Bobcat comeback with two touchdown passes in the second quarter bookending an Ohio field goal and a 17-14 Bobcats lead at the half.

Both team’s defenses played under a “bend but don’t break” mentality in the second half waiting on the other to make a mistake.  Once again, a Herd turnover led to another Bobcat win as Jelani Woseley intercepted a fourth quarter Cato pass with 20 seconds remaining. Marshall lost 27-24.

However, 2013 was supposed to be the year the Herd finally got over the Bobcats hump but once again turnovers plagued Marshall and eventually led to a 34-31 defeat. Marshall committed four turnovers, three fumbles and a Cato interception, to zero from the Bobcats. Tettleton once again calmly marched his team up-and-down the field while converting 11-of-19 third down opportunities forcing the Herd’s defense into a repeat performance of 2011.

Although Solich is missing many of his offensive play makers, he likes what his defense has been able to do with Cato over the past three years.

"I think we've been pretty sound in what we've done against them,” Solich said. “I think this is probably their best team that we've faced and maybe in our [entire] time here, as far as this staff is concerned. So this will be maybe an even bigger challenge than what it's been. Obviously, we can't let them have the big plays and if you can force them into not getting explosive plays and having to stay on the field, and earn everything they get, then you're doing all that you can. I think our football team is capable of being that kind of a defensive football team but we've shown signs of, every now and then, giving up those explosive plays. You just can't let that happen with any kind of consistency and think you'll play well enough to win the game."

Coming into the “Battle for the Bell’s” final visit to Huntington until 2019, there is one thing that Marshall must do in order to beat Ohio, take care of the football.

Over the past three contests Marshall has committed 13 turnovers to Ohio’s three. Entering Saturday’s contest both teams have fumbled six times with Marshall recovering two to Ohio’s one. Holliday said Marshall has to take care of the ball to have a chance to beat Ohio.

“You constantly work in your individual drills,” explained Holliday. “Ohio had the same issue against Kent State. They turned the ball over four times and came back the following week and only turned it over, I believe, once against Kentucky. They got it fixed and we have to get it fixed. You will not beat a good football team if you give them the football that many times.”

While Marshall returns several players from last season, only three have ever beaten Ohio—James Rouse, Darryl Roberts and Demetrius Evans. On the other hand for Ohio, while it returns a veteran defensive staff led by linebacker Jovan Johnson, there is no Tettleton, no Beau Blankenship and no Donte Foster. This year Ohio will be led by quarterback Darius Vick, or perhaps quarterback J.D. Sprague or running back Daz Patterson. While there remains uncertainty of what to expect from the Bobcats, Holliday said at least game film exists from this season.

“The positive to that is we now have film,” Holliday said. “We have two games with a sample of both of them. Vick played the Kent State game and Sprague played the majority of the Kentucky game. So we at least have them both on film. The one thing that hasn't happened is Ohio doesn't look like they have changed their philosophy a lot with either quarterback. They both have similar skill sets. They both can run and make all of their throws. I don't think they're going to change what they do. They will try and do what each of them does best. But we at least have a sample of both of them, which is something we haven't had this season.”

Ohio’s offense has been like a science experiment gone bad. Through two games this season, the Bobcats totaled 660 yards of offense. Marshall had 724 yards last week with 432 yards coming on the ground.

Vick led the Bobcats to a 17-14 win over Kent State in week one, but was benched in the first half last week at Kentucky after all six of his passes missed the intended mark. Solich turned to Sprague who went 13-for-25 in his Bobcat debut but could not will his team to a comeback as the Bobcats fell 20-3 to UK.

Thus far for Ohio, it has only scored two touchdowns—both coming against Kent State—and is averaging 330 yards of offense.

Marshall must contain the dual-threat of Vick while trying to stop Ohio’s double-stack receiver set that has haunted the Herd over the years. Luckily the Herd saw a similar look last week against Rhode Island and cornerback Corey Tindal did a great job of taking away the quick slants, a play that Tettleton used to lull the Herd to sleep with before finding a target deep down field.

So much like Marshall’s first two games this season, it’s another week of uncertainty for the Herd.

Marshall cannot have another performance like Miami this season where the defense cannot get off the field on third down. Luckily for the Herd, the Bobcats have struggled mightily (11-of-28) on third down this season. If Marshall can force Ohio into third-and-long situations, this number could rise significantly. More importantly for the Herd, it must get off the field on third down.

As for Marshall, if it can duplicate the running attack that UK pulled off last weekend in Lexington, Ohio will have to load the box thus leaving single coverage on the Herd’s receivers. UK carried the ball 52 times, gaining 232 yards (4.5 yards per carry). Much like the Herd, UK has a dual-look rushing attack that resembles a Marshall Devon Johnson, Remi Watson and Stew Butler combination that results in a one-two punch from the backfield, but Holliday said the Herd must keep the attack simple and take what is given.

“We have to continue to take what that defense gives us, whether it be the run or the pass,” Holliday said. “We just need to continue not trying to put round pegs in square holes and execute our offense. If they give us the run, we'll run it and if they give us the opportunity to throw it, we'll throw it. We'll take what they give us, do our job, and execute our offense.”

In a contest that pits two teams that always brings out the best and worst in one another, this year the Herd must find a way to bring out the worst in the Bobcats. Marshall needs to start like it did in 2012 when it had a two touchdown lead after the first quarter but must finish of the Bobcats if given the chance.

“With these guys (Ohio), you better play a complete game and take care of the football,” said Holliday. “You better come ready to play or they'll beat you. That's just the kind of team they are.”

Should this game be decided by who wins the turnover battle, Marshall must take care of the ball to pick up its 10th win in the “Battle for the Bell.” However, should the Herd fail to take care of business early, it could be another chapter of the “Ohio beats Marshall again” book, only with a different writer than the past three seasons.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Marshall Football vs Miami Column

It’s a win. That was exactly the thought that Marshall Football head coach Doc Holliday had as his team boarded the bus to head back to Huntington after knocking off Miami 42-27 in Oxford.

Was the win pretty? Not a chance.

Will the Herd gain any style points for its 42 points scored? Not in this lifetime.

Will this game help the Herd later down the road? Very possible.

I have heard so many complaints and remarks about how Marshall should have destroyed this team but failed to do so. After all, Marshall led 28-3 at the half only to be outscored 24-14 in the second half.

But for everyone who is ready to jump ship on the Herd’s march towards perfection I offer you this. The last time Marshall won a season opener on the road was at Clemson in 1999, 13-10.

That was the same year the Herd finished 13-0, won the MAC Championship and defeated BYU 21-3 in the Motor City Bowl.

Do not take me wrong, I am not saying Miami (Ohio) is Clemson in any case, but does anyone remember what the Tigers finished that season?

Try 6-6 with the sixth loss coming to Mississippi State in the Peach Bowl.

What if Miami finishes 6-6 and makes a bowl? Then Saturday’s game has a whole new meaning.

After watching the potential the RedHawks have this season, I think it is a possibility.

Andrew Hendrix makes Miami a totally different team than that of the one that was beat down 52-14 in Huntington last season. Yes many of the skill players returned that played last year, but that was with a totally different quarterback and coaching staff.

Hendrix makes this team a competitor, and now. Add his fellow Notre Dame transfer tight end Alex Welch to the mix of receivers Rokeem Williams, David Frazier and Dawan Scott and Hendrix has some real threats to sling the ball to.

Not to mention Hendrix is dangerous with his running ability as well.

Marshall should have finished off the RedHawks when it had possession to open the third quarter. But a costly fumble by Deandre Reaves gave Miami something that it so desperately needed, hope.

If Marshall does not fumble on that drive and punches another score into the endzone, game over! The only fans left in Yager Stadium would have been those wearing green and white. But not only did the RedHawks get hope, so did the fans. Even if it was only a glimmer, there was something to fight for and Miami did just that.

But Marshall did one thing to combat the Miami surge, it never panicked. Not once did the body language of any of the Herd players show signs of trouble or concern. Instead, it was business as usual. In other words, Marshall stared not only adversity, but road adversity dead in the eye, and the Herd never blinked.

Week one is always the toughest week of the season. So many variables and intangibles play into the outcome of the opening week.

But as Holliday said, “the most improvement you’ll make in a game is from game one to game two and we’ve got to make sure we do that.”

That seemed to be the case in 1999 after Marshall had its lowest scoring game of the season in game one.

How did the Herd fare after that? It outscored its opponents 450-127 over the next 12 games. I think one could call that an improvement.

Marshall’s second game of the 1999 season should be much like the game the Herd plays this Saturday as its home opener, a beat down. Marshall rolled Liberty 63-3 at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on its way to a perfect season.

The Herd should do much of the same Saturday against Rhode Island.

At this point in the season, who really cares if the win has the sex appeal the voters want to see or is ugly at best. The most important thing is winning. Half the teams that played this past weekend lost. Marshall is not in that category.

Marshall won and its hopes of an undefeated season are still alive. Priority number one earns a check.

So before one throws the season down the toilet just because the team played below expectations in week one stop and ask is there a difference in a 45-3 win compared to 42-27?

Only if Marshall should lose a game this season and entering week two, the Herd is 1-0.

Merely half the teams in college football can say that, and Marshall is in that half.