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Herd 'has a lot to play for' against UAB

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - As the cynics both inside and outside the Marshall fan base would point out, the Thundering Herd's four victories have come against teams with a combined 6-32 record.

Guess what? Win or lose, that stat won't improve today.

As it tries to continue a rally to bowl eligibility, the Herd (4-5, 3-2 Conference USA) faces another team that has clinched a losing season, Alabama-Birmingham (2-7, 1-4). Kickoff time is 4:30 p.m. EST, with the game airing on WVAH, channel 11 in Charleston-Huntington.

Soon enough, Marshall will play teams with better records, finishing the season with Houston and East Carolina. But today, the road to the postseason runs through 85-year-old Legion Field and its legion of empty bleachers.

Much like last week against 1-8 Memphis, the Herd must take care of business against UAB and establish its first two-game winning streak of the season. The alternative is not a good option, and will wipe out the margin of error for bowl eligibility, and make a grumpy fan base back home even grumpier, among other consequences.

"We have a lot to play for," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. "There is a lot left out there on the table for us. I mentioned last week that we had four shots and now we're down to three shots."

But the good news: The Herd need only worry about one of those shots today against a perennially struggling program and an East Division rival the Herd has dominated since entering C-USA, going 6-1 against UAB.

In many ways, the Herd's advantage is clearer that the two-game difference in the team's records, both overall and in league play.

For one, Marshall is riding a three-game road winning streak in conference play, dating back to the nearly disastrous 23-22 win over Memphis last November. Again, the opponents haven't been overwhelming - that Memphis team, Rice and Southern Mississippi this year - but the Herd had won six road games in the previous six-plus seasons against teams of any pedigree.

The last road performance, a 59-24 win over Southern Miss, wasn't shabby, even if the Golden Eagles are still winless.

"We've played really well on the road, but it can be a lot better," said safety Okechukwu Okoroha. "It's going to be a tough matchup. These guys don't look like a [2-7] team."

Marshall's offense stands to get back above the 500-yard mark in total offense after being held to 364 by Central Florida and 433 by Memphis. The former was caused by simple good defense, the latter by the Tigers stranding Rakeem Cato and company on the sidelines.

The Blazers have had trouble against the pass. In late October, they allowed 386 yards passing to East Carolina's Shane Carden and 466 to Tulane's Ryan Griffin. Linebacker Marvin Burdette had 24 tackles against Tulane, in part because he was the one Blazer capable of chasing receivers down.

Marshall's defense could get paid back today for all their frustration in chasing quarterbacks. UAB freshman QB Austin Brown, for all his ability and achievement, has suffered the majority of the team's 31 sacks and has a net rushing total of minus-168 yards.

But when Brown gets his feet set and fires he is as good as there is in Conference USA. His TD-to-interception ratio is 12-7 and he owns four 300-yard games, second in C-USA only to Cato's seven. Darrin Reaves, who has rushed for 389 yards in the last two games, provides the Blazers a run-pass balance Marshall has struggled to defend.

The Blazers' special teams are perhaps among their best since realignment, with excellent specialists in place-kicker Ty Long and punter Hunter Mullins. The Blazers also have two blocked punts, one for a TD.

Coming off a big second half in 27-19 win over Southern Miss, the Blazers appear to be playing hard under first-year coach Garrick McGee. Much like Memphis did last week, expect the Blazers to go for it on fourth down a little more often - they have done so 20 times, second only to the Tigers' 22. But UAB has succeeded on just seven of those tries.

The Herd yielded six fourth downs in a row to Memphis last week, a big factor in Marshall escaping with a 38-28 win instead of a rout. That alone should have the Herd focused for today's bout.

That, and the pursuit of another bowl bid, which will be easier if the Herd exits today's game 5-5 and not 4-6.

"It's difficult, but the reason we're not panicking is because we've been there before," said defensive end Jeremiah Taylor.

Contact Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

 

 


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