Nowhere to go but up
HUNTINGTON - No disrespect to Western Carolina, but Marshall spent this week largely preparing for ... make that preparing to get better.
Tonight, a week after its 69-34 schnoz-busting at West Virginia, the Thundering Herd will see how far it has progressed. With important games on the immediate horizon, style points are nearly as important as points on the scoreboard.
The Herd tangles with former Southern Conference foe Western Carolina (1-0) at 7 p.m. at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. The game airs on a different outlet for Herd fans, Fox College Sports Atlantic (Suddenlink digital 509).
The Herd has much to repair on the defensive side after giving up 655 total yards to the Mountaineers.
"We're at a point where we have to be more concerned with us," said defensive coordinator Chris Rippon. "We are going to focus on what we have to do in order to win games, play great defense and get ready to play a Conference USA schedule."
There isn't an area the Herd defense doesn't need to improve. But that should not have been a surprise - against WVU, there were a lot of players in their college debuts, first starts or first significant action in more than a year.
Count them - Alex Bazzie and Ra'Shawde Myers at one end and Malcom Strong backing up at the other; Jarquez Samuel and Steve Dillon at tackles, Raheem Waiters, Cortez Carter and Evan McKelvey at linebacker and Keith Baxter at cornerback. Even the safeties, former Boston College veterans Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha, haven't played in more than a year and a half.
With Ohio, Purdue and eight Conference USA rivals ahead, Rippon knows the urgency. Coaches tried to share that urgency with defenders this week.
"You use so many different techniques as a coach - what happens on the practice field, how do you think you're going to get [through] to them in that particular situation," Rippon said. "We have young kids, and when you're talking about some guys, this was their first week.
"Jarquez was dinged up for most of camp. Steve Dillon was hurt most of camp. Now, they come out today, as a coach you're expecting them to come out a million miles an hour. As a young player - neither of those guys have played football for a year - it takes awhile for them to get back into speed. How do you light that fire? Well, it's either yelling at them, or whatever you've got to do to say, 'This is where you have to be, and what you gave us isn't it.'
"And they'll come along."
Offensively, the Herd successfully ran the tempo it likes (very fast), protected the quarterback well (one sack), threw efficiently (38 completions, 413 yards) and ran the ball respectably at WVU. Wipe out the turnovers and that side should prosper tonight.
The Herd will face a Catamount team that has the confidence of winning its first game under new coach Mark Speir. But that was to Division II Mars Hill, a foe the Catamounts have beaten 14 times in row. Against everybody else, they haven't won 14 games over the last five-plus years.
Speir, who came over from Southern Conference powerhouse Appalachian State, isn't interested in losing traditions. He's really not interested in the fact that Western hasn't beaten an FBS team.
"I told our team, we're going up to Marshall to win," Speir said. "We're not going up there to play good or to earn a check. It's an opportunity for us to go up, play a tremendous opponent in a hostile environment, and see how far our program has come. I think Saturday night, win or lose, we're going to have a gauge of going into an environment like that, when you have a little adversity strikes to see really how far we have or have not come."
Sounds familiar. Going from sizable underdogs to prohibitive favorites, Marshall also will see how far it has or has not come tonight.
"Our team is looking forward to coming home and playing this week. The important thing our coaches and players have to understand is that we have to prepare to play every week or you're going to get beat," said Herd coach Doc Holliday.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.