'We have to get better'
HUNTINGTON - Marshall coach Doc Holliday wouldn't sell his soul for a rushing touchdown, but he has invested considerable energy trying to get his offense to find the end zone.
With a tough first half of the season behind it, Holliday's Thundering Herd launches its second-half run against Rice at 3 p.m. today in Marshall's 110th homecoming game.
The big question hovering over Joan C. Edwards Stadium is whether the Herd offense can get untracked against six defenses that rank comfortably below the first six defenses on the schedule.
Funny thing is, for all the coachspeak about defense, defense, defense, you still can't win if you don't score. Marshall (2-4 overall, 1-1 Conference USA) has seven offensive touchdowns in six games, zero on the ground.
"I'm not happy at all where our offense is. I'm not. We have to get better," Holliday said. "Defensively, four of the six teams we've played are in the top 18 in the country. Not in the conference, in the country.
"It's not an excuse. We simply have to get better. We have to make plays and, yes, we've lined up against some good teams just like Rice has. Unfortunately, we're both where we are and we both have to win football games."
Rice will be the eighth team from the state of Texas to play in Huntington, and all have gone home disappointed. But the Owls (2-3, 1-1) arrive with momentum after a 28-6 win last week at Memphis.
"The vibe around here is positive. We have two quality wins, we feel like [including one vs. Purdue]," said Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue. "We need to move ahead in the conference, build on the stuff that was presented to us in those first four challenging games."
The Owls don't carry overwhelming numbers offensively, but they will pose a mental challenge for a Herd defense that likely will have Vinny Curry. The star end went home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral, but returned Friday.
"They are as diversified as any team you're going to see," said Chris Rippon, MU's defensive coordinator. "There are parts of everything that they've got going. And they jump all over the place.
"They're going to be in a tight end and three wides and a back, and then all of a sudden they split this big tight end out and throw him passes they normally throw to wideouts. And then they've got two backs and then they've got two backs in the wildcat concept.
"And they come in with '12', two tight ends. They're an option team, they're a perimeter team, a lot of boots and nakeds. They try to put you in a situation where it's one-on-one."
MU's defense played Central Florida well enough to win last week, by Conference USA standards. But the Herd offense mustered just 130 total yards and six first downs and no offensive touchdowns in a nonstop rain, against a nonstop UCF defense.
The numbers are tough to stomach for old-school Herd fans who remember the high-powered attacks of yesteryear. It goes beyond being ranked 115th in total offense and 117th in scoring.
Third-down conversions rank 114th, a touch below 28 percent. The Herd is 63rd in red-zone percentage, but that is very misleading.
For one thing, Marshall has made it to the opponents' 20-yard line just 11 times. Only three schools have done so less: Memphis, Mississippi and Vanderbilt.
The Herd gets credit for the four field goals, but has just five touchdowns. Only four schools have scored fewer than the Herd's 47 red-zone points.
And all five Herd red-zone scores have been through the air. There have been no rushing touchdowns from inside or outside the opponents' 20 - Marshall is the only FBS team to have that dubious distinction.
Shoot, all the 119 other teams have at least two. Marshall hasn't scored a rushing touchdown in 222 attempts, dating back to Essray Taliaferro's fourth-quarter run last November at Southern Methodist.
As Holliday looks to spark that offense, he does so with sophomore A.J. Graham making his first start at quarterback. Freshman Rakeem Cato has been benched, probably more for losing his cool at UCF than for any on-field shortcomings.
If you want to start a pool on the Herd's first rushing touchdown, the more mobile Graham might be the best candidate. He might be the hungriest, too.
"It was real close," Graham said of the QB battle in August. "Coaches kept saying that, day in and day out. They made their decision and we rode it out from there."
By land or by air, Graham's assignment today boils down to one thing: Finding the end zone.
A good start to the Herd's home stretch rides on it.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org.