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At 2-2, Herd seeks 'one more play'

After Marshall's triple-overtime loss to Virginia Tech last weekend, coach Doc Holliday threw his all-green whistle. If he tried to throw it on the interview table, it just missed.

Which is the story of the Thundering Herd's nonconference portion of its 2013 schedule: Just missed. Holliday and his players were plenty grouchy about it.

"Unfortunately, Virginia Tech made one more play at the end than we did," Holliday said.

A common piece of coachspeak, yes, but the phrase "one more play" deserves emphasis. In the Tech game, that "one more play" could be found everywhere.

Skip the mistakes, such as that brutally botched punt return, or allowing the Hokies' punter to gain a first down off a fumbled snap. For the minute, anyway.

Consider Darryl Roberts' near deflection on the game-tying fourth-down touchdown pass. Or Devon Smith's touchdown pass that was pilfered by fast-closing safety Kyshoen Jarrett. Or Justin Haig's much-discussed 39-yard field goal attempt. Or Rakeem Cato's fourth-down pass dropped by Davonte Allen.

Or, or, or.

The Herd gets a full week off before preparing for its Oct. 5 homecoming bout with Texas-San Antonio, one of four Conference USA newcomers on the schedule. The team will need the time to heal, and to correct several deficiencies.

Injury updates tend to come out today, and there are several issues there. Tight end Gator Hoskins limped off the field, defensive linemen Jarquez Samuel and Ra'Shawde Myers went down on the same play, linebacker Evan McKelvey went down, Smith was woozy after the aforementioned interception, which came with a strong collision.

Offensive lineman Josh Lovell and top "Z" receiver Craig Wilkins didn't make the trip, along with defensive end Jeremiah Taylor.

Another offensive lineman, Jordan Jeffries, also did not play. Left tackle Gage Niemeyer, center Chris Jasperse and right tackle Garrett  Scott took all 92 snaps (negated plays included) - certainly, that was a factor behind Virginia Tech's defense getting the upper hand as the game wore on.

Injuries happen. So do mistakes. What needs to be corrected?

Special teams, special teams, special teams. One could argue that if Herd coaches can snuff out that dumpster fire, everything else will fall into place.

One could also argue the Herd could be 4-0 if not for two horrendous special-teams miscues. Steward Butler may never return kickoffs again after his fumble gave Ohio a touchdown, and Tyler Williams never had a chance to avoid that blocked punt two minutes into the Virginia Tech game.

"To get that punt block is unacceptable," Holliday said. "It's ridiculous."

A touchdown in a three-point game and a touchdown in an overtime game. The math is too easy to ignore. Special teams must improve or the Herd will lose another game or two.

Good news: Coverage has gotten better, though the Herd was bailed out by a penalty that negated a long Virginia Tech return. The longest kickoff return against MU, in 12 attempts, has been 30 yards. The attempts have been cut by freshman Amareto Curraj, who has 15 touchbacks, a number previously unfathomable.

Punt returns can and probably will be better. Smith averages 9.4 yards on 12 attempts, but he has a 28-yard runback to his credit, and his 19-yarder flipped field position early in last week's game. That helped lead to Marshall's first touchdown.

The culture of the Herd defense has changed, but the stats send a few mixed signals. Virginia Tech went just 2 of 16 on third downs, but converted three fourth-down attempts out of four. Ohio didn't need a fourth-down attempt, as it went 11 of 19 on third.

The Herd defense is getting off the field at a better rate, but must consistently do that to keep the offense humming. The number of sacks needs to come up a bit, as the Herd has just five against the three FBS opponents. Takeaways (three vs. FBS) must improve.

The secondary play suggests that more interceptions are on the way, and the much-improved run defense suggests a few more fumbles are forth coming. Alex Bazzie is playing possessed at one end, and backup end Gary Thompson is good for a dominating play or two every game.

Offensively, the line struggled at times against Virginia Tech, but would have prospered against, say, a Middle Tennessee or Florida Atlantic. This unit has been as capable and deep as it has been in years, but the Herd doesn't want to go more than two down. Better health is the object here.

The development (and good health) of outside receiver spots is becoming more crucial. Losing "Z" position starter Wilkins was a blow, and Herd coaches passed on using freshman Josh Hunt.

The running back position seems to be 11/2-deep instead of four. Injuries have limited Remi Watson and Kevin Grooms, and Butler may be in a fumble-induced exile. (Last weekend, Holliday cited superior pass blocking in the near-exclusive use of Essray Taliaferro, which does make sense.)

With all that, the Herd won't face a tougher team than Virginia Tech the rest of the way, and might face one tougher team than Ohio. That's East Carolina, who gave the Hokies problems as well.

The schedule lacks Rice, which seems to have supplanted Tulsa as the favorite in the West Division. It certainly lacks Central Florida, which has moved on to the American Athletic Conference. And MU counts Florida International, the most dysfunctional FBS program in all the land, as a division foe.

But UTSA is better than predicted - much better, perhaps. Florida Atlantic could be good enough to take advantage of humidity not found up north in October. Middle Tennessee and Tulsa aren't easy outs on the road on Thursday night.

Still, Marshall and ECU may be on a collision course for the East title, maybe home field in the Conference USA championship game. But neither team is invincible.

Marshall must correct a number of flaws, stay relatively healthy and finish games better.

"That's the only thing this team's missing," said defensive back Corey Tindal. "The finish."

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

 


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