Marshall mired in rare home slump
HUNTINGTON - From time to time, I've told people Marshall football will be formidable again when the team plays almost as well on the road as it does at home.
The Thundering Herd's 54-17 loss Saturday night to Central Florida shot a giant hole in that theory, now didn't it? All of a sudden, this MU team plays better on the road than it does in the friendly confines of Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Much better, it seems.
Marshall had to kick, scratch and claw its way past Rice in double overtime on a hot, stuffy Houston day in an empty stadium. The Owls are 3-6, but have showed they are much better with quarterback Taylor McHargue healthy. Looking at their remaining schedule (Tulane, Southern Methodist, Texas-El Paso), they can salvage 6-6.
The Herd pick-sixed its way to a 28-point deficit at Purdue, but had a peep at cutting that margin to eight. The second half of that 51-41 setback was a no-asterisk great effort.
At Southern Mississippi, Marshall squeezed the life out of the home team. The Golden Eagles were 0-6 coming in, yes, but were coming off a double-overtime loss to UCF and had several players back from their 2011 Conference USA championship season.
But Marshall scored 59 points, the most on the road since 1927, and hazed Southern Miss quarterback Anthony Alford until his benching. In the stands, Alford's mother got in an altercation with disgusted fans and was arrested, an incident that has drawn 32,000 looks on YouTube (search for "usm crazy momma").
"Disorderly" sums up the state of the USM program now. In a 44-17 loss to Rice, a long snap bounced off the three-man shield in front of punter Peter Boehme.
'Nuff said. Marshall's program is in better shape than that, and in better shape than it was in 2007 when it started 0-7.
But that doesn't make Saturday's debacle, the third home loss in a row, any easier to swallow. The 22,563 poncho-draped fans deserved better.
They didn't deserve to see:
I'll say it again: Under the new kickoff rules, no major-college team should ever give up a KO-return touchdown. It shouldn't have to squib or pooch-kick to avoid one, either. I joke that a team, upon giving up such a TD, should forfeit on the spot.
So should the Herd forfeit the next game, too?
"We had no issues last week [at Southern Miss]," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "We were excellent because our guys ran down and made plays. We didn't change the kickoff this week - we lined them up in the same place, we kicked the ball in the same place, we had guys right there.
"He's a good returner but still, you've got to make the play when you're there."
On a third-and-10, Blake Bortles hit Jeff Godfrey down the right sideline for 33 yards. On a third-and-10, Bortles pulled the ball down and escaped onrushing linebacker Deon Meadows for 12 yards.
Down 7-3 at the time, the Herd was bailed out on that drive by a Billy Mitchell interception, but that good feeling lasted only to the next UCF third down. That's when Bortles, seeing a face full of Cortez Carter on third-and-8, calmly delivered a screen pass to running back Latavius Murray for 18 yards.
Two plays later, receiver J.J. Worton sneaked past linebacker D.J. Hunter (not a mismatch, actually) for a 29-yard catch to the Marshall 2. Murray scored to make it 14-3, and the rout was on.
It has occurred to me: Charlie Taaffe, the UCF offensive coordinator who spent 10 years as head coach of The Citadel, has defeated four different Marshall staffs - George Chaump (1988), Jim Donnan (1990), Mark Snyder (2009-10) and Holliday (2011-12).
There were seven drops in the first half - Gator Hoskins two, Aaron Dobson two, Kevin Grooms one, Antavious Wilson one and C.J. Crawford one. Three came on third downs, ending drives, and Dobson had two.
You've got to catch those. Herd receivers did a much better job in the Tulsa game and had a good chance to knock off the West Division leader in a scorefest; in the UCF game, a chance at 21 or 28 points turned into a single field goal.
"Those are great guys. They've been making great catches all year," said Cato. "Spectacular catches, one-handed catches, diving catches and everything. So they're human. The best are going to drop balls and I don't blame any of them. They make me look good."
In the case of Dobson, NFL evaluators won't be as forgiving - much like Josh Davis in 2004, his stock is dropping with every ball that hits the carpet. In the twilight of his college career, Dobson must step up his game.
The two kickoff returns contributed, but the UCF offense scored six touchdowns, five on drives of 75 yards or longer. The last was a 15-play, 99-yard march that chewed up 10 minutes, 10 seconds and had the positive effect of speeding up the game's end.
Still, the time of torture was 3 hours, 23 minutes, two minutes shorter than Game 3 of the World Series.
So what's next? The East Division race is all but over, but Marshall's season is not dead at 3-5, 2-2.
The next two games come against 1-7 teams, Memphis and Alabama-Birmingham. A welcome development, but recent history dictates that one of these games will be a close call.
Memphis is up first, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Edwards Stadium. The only way to get 20,000 there is to set up two basketball goals in the south end zone and bring the real Tigers in for a pickup game against coach Tom Herrion's Herd hoopsters.
Otherwise, it would behoove the Herd football team to play better in its own house. Marshall has never lost four in a row in Edwards Stadium, and hasn't lost four straight at home since 1981.
If it happened in 1981, chances are an MU football team doesn't want to repeat it.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.