Scoring 59 points not enough for Herd
GREENVILLE, N.C. - The epitaph of Marshall's 2012 football season: The Thundering Herd scored 59 points and lost.
The third year of the Doc Holliday era has come to a close, as has the tenure of defensive coordinator Chris Rippon, who handed in his resignation Saturday. After a season in which Rippon's unit shattered a few unwanted Thundering Herd records, the development surprised nobody.
Rippon's last disaster came in the Herd's 65-59 double-overtime loss Friday at East Carolina, a game that hinged on a 19-yard pass from Shane Carden to Justin Hardy on fourth-and-10. Had the Herd stopped the Pirates on that down, it could have taken a few knees and gone to its second consecutive bowl game. Instead, Carden eventually hit Danny Webster on a 6-yard touchdown pass, tying the game at 52 with 4 seconds left in regulation.
You can pick your malignant milestone from that game, including the fact that Hardy's crossing-route reception was the 19th fourth-down conversion against the Herd in 25 attempts this season, a shocking 76 percent. Over the last five games, that figure was 13 out of 16.
Other numbers underscoring Rippon's downfall:
The result Friday hurled the MU program back across the thin line from mildly successful to struggling. Instead of playing in its second consecutive bowl game, the Herd suffered its second 5-7 season in three years under Holliday.
As painful as that is, the Herd has performed better in these three years than the first three years of previous coach Mark Snyder. Holliday is 17-20 overall and 13-11 in Conference USA play, while Snyder was 12-23 overall from 2005-07, 10-14 in league games.
Record-wise, Snyder's 2007 team scraped the program's bottom at 3-9, and it wasn't hard to figure why. Starting with the season-ending injury to Albert McClellan, the outmanned defense was roughed up for 411 points, yielding 191 rushing yards and 451 total yards per game. The Herd ranked 102nd, 93rd and 107th nationally in those categories.
The 2012 Herd defense was worse, by a healthy margin. Entering the weekend, it ranked 116th in scoring defense and 97th in total defense, rankings that can only get worse after the weekend. The rush defense was 106th, though that should improve (with Carden's hot hand, the Pirates rushed for just 116 yards).
Twenty-three of those 517 points scored on the Herd came in overtime, 10 in a win over Rice and 13 to ECU. Overtimes can skew stats, but the Herd defense gets the blame for allowing those games to be tied in the first place.
In the Rice game, the Herd gave up late runs of 43 and 47 yards by quarterback Taylor McHargue, the former scoring a touchdown and latter coming awfully close. McHargue injured his shoulder attempting a heroic dive and Owls back Turner Petersen committed a false start on the MU 1-yard line, allowing the Herd to avoid a loss in regulation.
Those defensive pratfalls - and a weekly dash of special-teams ineptitude - overshadowed the Herd's best offensive season in a decade. Rakeem Cato threw for 4,000-plus yards, Tommy Shuler caught a school-record 110 passes and the offense scored 491 points, about 41 per game.
But it meant nothing Friday, as the Herd's 52 points in regulation only brought on overtime - and heartbreak. It had Holliday muttering about defense, and Marshall's lack thereof.
"You look at the end of the day, the two teams that are playing for the championship are Central Florida and Tulsa," he said, before remembering that ECU was still alive in the East Division race at the time. His thought trailed off, but he was referring to the league's best two defenses.
On Saturday, UCF clinched the East Division easily enough, brushing away 3-9 Alabama-Birmingham 49-24.
That is something Marshall failed to do earlier this month, mostly because of its defense. In that game, the Blazers' Darrin Reaves rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That, too, denied Marshall a bowl berth.
"We've got to start playing better defense around here to get where we want to go," Holliday said.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.