.500 or bust for Houston, Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - To paraphrase a Marshall player or two this week, finishing 6-6 is not what a college football team shoots for August.
But in November, sometimes it beats the alternative.
That's what the Thundering Herd and the Houston Cougars face today as they battle each other at high noon at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Both have seen games get away, both have suffered routs, both have made their fans yank their hair out.
Several months ago, the Cougars were widely considered a favorite or at least a contender to win the West Division of Conference USA. Against what was perceived to be an easier schedule, expectations were heightened in the Marshall camp.
Today, the teams both carry 4-6 records (3-3 Conference USA). The winner still needs to win again in the 12th game to land in the postseason, but the loser doesn't get a sniff.
Under coach Doc Holliday, the Herd has had plenty of experience in this predicament - it has been 4-6 after 10 games in 2010 and 2011. Even Mark Snyder's 2009 Herd was 5-5 after 10 games and had bowl eligibility heading into his final game, a disastrous loss at Texas-El Paso.
The Herd won two tension-filled games to make a bowl last year. Perhaps that experience will push Marshall, which is also trying to avoid a fourth loss at home for the first time in 22 seasons at Edwards Stadium.
"It was just pure want-to and passion last year," said defensive tackle Marques Aiken. "I feel like we'll rely on the same efforts this year. We had a lot of expectations coming into this season. Unfortunately we didn't meet them all, but we still have something to play for, and that's always a blessing. It's a different feeling after you know you're going home after the season's over."
"I think our kids understand what is at stake," said Holliday. "They have to go play extremely well. It is the same scenario we had at Memphis a year ago, too. We found a way to go win last year and that is what this team has to go do."
What the Herd has to do immediately is correct everything that went wrong last week in a 38-31 loss at 2-8 Alabama-Birmingham. And "everything" is a pretty good description.
Offensively, the Herd needs to come off last week's season-low 337 total yards. MU needs to do it against a Houston defense that is capable of making big plays (29 sacks, 23 takeaways, but 474.7 yards, 37.1 points allowed per game). In the last two games, the Herd has suffered six three-and-outs, an uncharacteristic number for a team averaging 28 first downs a game.
Marshall's oft-maligned defense has at least one thing going for it: It has forced 12 turnovers in the last four games, most of the 17 for the season. The Herd is still being troubled by the run, giving up 184 yards to UAB's Darrin Reaves last week, but defensive coordinator Chris Rippon is seeing progress.
Yes, he sees the missed plays. He points to one long touchdown pass UAB scored on Keith Baxter, who fell on the play. When the Blazers threw that pattern again, Baxter intercepted the pass.
"It's finally clicking," Rippon said. "They're great kids. They got exposed under the harshest conditions, and the game is starting to slow down a little bit for them. Things are happening repetitively, and it's sunk in and now they're sort of playing to their talent level."
Special teams have been the Herd's growing headache over the past few weeks, sparking vows from Holliday to use more starters on the kicking units if need be.
Some good news on that front: The Cougars are last in Conference USA in kickoff returns (17.13) and punt returns (3.61).
Houston has been riddled with injuries in recent weeks and could have three of its four captains out - guard Jacolby Ashworth, star running back Charles Sims and cornerback D.J. Hayden. Ashworth has been ruled out with a leg injury, Sims has been termed "very, very doubtful" with an ankle injury and Hayden recently suffered a near-fatal vein tear.
The Cougars got an emotional boost when Hayden left the hospital early this week and addressed the team. How far that emotion goes is always an unknown factor.
So are the emotions surrounding Marshall's senior day. Herd fans will say goodbye to a small class of eight seniors, but a few of those may be sidelined with injuries, including receiver Aaron Dobson and linebacker Devin Arrington.
Their younger teammates vow to pick up the slack.
"Our fans, they're down just like we're down," said Chris Jasperse. "But we've got to go out with a bang for our seniors, for what they've done for our program, where they've gotten us. Johnny [Bruhin, the veteran guard] has been here six years, he's put his heart and soul into this team.
"The injuries he's fought through, the back surgeries, we've got to let him go out with a bang."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.