First road test for Herd
ATHENS, Ohio - Every so often, Doc Holliday has his wishes granted.
"To be honest with you, I'm anxious to get on our bus and go play somewhere else," said the fourth-year Marshall coach, "and see how far this team has come, how much they have developed."
Yes, that will happen. Today, the Thundering Herd will get on the bus and go to Ohio. Next week, another bus trip to Virginia Tech. After a week off and then a single home game, the Herd travels to Florida Atlantic and to Middle Tennessee.
Four road trips in five games over the next seven weeks. Yeah, the coach will see how well his troops function away from Huntington.
Of those four away games, tonight's bout in Peden Stadium could carry the craziest atmosphere - yes, more so than at the always-loud Lane Stadium at Virginia Tech.
The Bobcats are drawing full houses these days, even without a lot of visiting fans. There will be plenty of visitors tonight, as re-energized Herd fans rediscover the roads to Athens.
Game time is 8 p.m., set for an ESPNews telecast - plenty of time for students to do whatever they do at one of America's top-rated party schools.
Marshall (2-0) is itching for two years worth of payback. Ohio (1-1) loves to beat its former Mid-American Conference brethren. Winner rings "The Bell."
Ladies and gentlemen, it is on.
"These guys, from the time the whistle blows until the game is over, they're going to fight you," said of the Bobcats. "They're going to play extremely hard and they're going to play extremely tough and the game's never over until it's over with these guys, because they know how to win. If you don't match their intensity, then you've got no chance.
"I think it's going to be a great atmosphere, 8 o'clock at night and the stadium filled up."
With a veteran quarterback, veteran running backs and toughness all around, the Bobcats are going to test every aspect of Marshall's game, especially those areas the Herd feels it has made the most progress.
Defense comes to immediate mind, front to back.
The Herd has gone six quarters without giving up a point, a prospect unthinkable a year ago, even against outmanned offenses such as Gardner-Webb.
Ohio's line is missing two veteran guards, but Marshall is missing defensive tackle Brandon Sparrow. And the Bobcats surely aren't missing their crafty quarterback, Tyler Tettleton, or running backs Beau Blankenship and Ryan Boykin. The physical backs have split the carries at 26 apiece, with Boykin having a 132-105 edge in yardage.
The Herd's megaplay offense certainly will test Ohio's defense, and Bobcats coach Frank Solich knows it.
"We have a lot of respect for what they are about," Solich said. "They have a hurry-up offense, so you'd better be ready to substitute on the defensive side, though they make that very difficult [by] staying in the same personnel through much of the game.
"They're a very difficult team to play, and we'll try to use as many guys as we can use."
But the Bobcats survived that Herd attack 52 weeks ago. They did it the old-fashioned way, stuffing the run and making Rakeem Cato and company become one-dimensional. That's the test for the Herd, which is still running plays at a dizzying pace but running more than passing.
"I think you'd like to continue to be balanced," Holliday said. "A lot of it is what they give us defensively. I've said from day one that we might not be as good on the stat sheets as we were a year ago, but we can be a better offense."
Marshall's improved special teams may receive their first legitimate test. So far, the top story in that phase has been Amareto Curraj, who has kicked 12 touchbacks - already double the Herd's total of last year.
The Herd's coverage units remain a curiosity. Punter Tyler Williams (45.7 average) may want to kick away from Travis Carrie, the sixth-year cornerback who is averaging 12.4 yards per return for Ohio, and Curraj may want to belt his kickoffs over the head of Devin Bass, who averages 25.4 yards per return.
The most formidable battle could be that of the coaching staffs. Holliday's fourth-year staff, with its several newcomers, might get into a match of wits with ninth-year coach Solich - and Solich has four assistants who have been in Athens his entire tenure.
It all adds up to the most important nonconference game for both teams. For Marshall, last year's loss to Ohio loomed very, very large in the final weeks of the 5-7 season.
So did four road losses. With that in mind, the Herd needs to build confidence away from home.
"Going into a different hotel, going into a different arena where not all our fans are there, that's a bit different," Holliday said. "When you go on the road, you've got to have great leadership - that's where it starts - and you've got to be an extremely tough team to play in those environments.
"We've got to find out if we are that."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.