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For Herd, it all comes down to this

GREENVILLE, N.C. - In the spirit of Black Friday, Marshall's football team is shopping - but for only one item. Sounds just like a bunch of men, doesn't it?

If the Thundering Herd wants to land this reward, it's going to have to hit harder than the hardy souls jostling for a Wii U at Best Buy at 4 a.m. The big present today is a bowl bid, and it isn't going to come gift-wrapped.

At East Carolina's Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, there are no layaways.

Just as it did last year, Marshall has backed itself into the hardest route to a bowl, going 5-6 and needing a season-ending win against ECU. The Herd won that in double overtime in Huntington, but the task is tougher this time around.

Historically, Marshall has known nothing but agony in Greenville, losing all six trips dating back to 1968. It has lost to the Pirates in three different stadium capacities (20,000; 43,000; current 50,000), two different names (Dowdy didn't join Ficklen until 1994), in games close and not so close.

The Herd even lost despite one of the better individual defensive performances in school history by Albert McClellan - and that 33-20 loss wasn't a cliffhanger.

So all that history doesn't mean diddly, you say. But the history written over the past three months means everything.

The two late turnovers against Ohio, remember those? The two fourth-down incompletions late in the game against Tulsa? The 38-31 loss at Alabama-Birmingham?

Until the 2 p.m. kickoff today, those losses loom larger than life. When the ball goes in the air, Marshall controls its fate.

As the Herd (4-6 overall, 4-3 Conference USA) gets one crack at its third bowl game in four years, it will have to do the following:

  • Win its second game in a row for the first time all season. The Herd hasn't failed to do that since the 3-9 season of 2007; conversely, it won the last three games of 2011.
  • Beat a team with a winning record. The Herd did that three times last season, including a home win over eventual C-USA champion Southern Mississippi. This year, the five teams losing to MU are a combined 13-42 (and that number has improved the last few weeks).
  • East Carolina was beaten soundly in its four losses (South Carolina, North Carolina, Central Florida, Navy), but has performed nicely in its seven wins. In the closer games - 42-35 over UAB and 28-23 last week over Tulane, ECU ran out the clock after yielding late scores.

  • Put all three phases together for something approaching 60 minutes. Or just avoid disaster in each of those phases.
  • The latter seems more realistic. Or better stated, less unrealistic.

    Marshall's offense regained its bearings last week in the 44-41 win over Houston, though interceptions squelched two scoring drives. Quarterback Rakeem Cato is braced for ECU to drop eight into coverage with disguises and variations, similar to what UAB did.

    "Playing us, you never know what you're going to get," Cato said. "What I did notice is every passing team they play, they drop eight. Every team that throws the ball a lot, they're going to drop eight and try to disguise, make it difficult for the quarterback."

    Defensively, the Herd has enjoyed a good half here and there, but those are often balanced by halves that are anywhere from shaky to wretched. In the Houston game, Marshall yielded 31 points and 282 total yards - that with the Cougars missing their starting quarterback and running back.

    Special teams, particularly the kick coverage units, have sent shivers down the spines of Herd fans. The kickoff unit has given up a return of at least 42 yards in each of the last four games, including those two touchdowns to UCF's Quincy McDuffie.

    Marshall must fix and/or fine-tune those phases, and do so despite an assortment of injuries. For instance, receiver Aaron Dobson may or may not face the team he victimized with his play-of-the-year catch last November, Steward Butler was trying to rejoin Kevin Grooms in the "baby back" rotation, and the offensive line may mix and match some more.

    It's all a test of the Herd's character and its coaching. One could argue this game is the linchpin of coach Doc Holliday's Marshall tenure.

    Will the Herd play in its second bowl in Holliday's three years, or be left out for the second time in that span? The answer comes today.

    "Go hard or go home. It's simple," Cato said. "Go hard or go home."


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