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When the safe play isn't so safe

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- WHEN I finally packed up my belongings and trudged out of muddy Blacksburg, Va., I did so with a sense of calm.

Part of it was that I was drained, frazzled by trying to put Marshall's 29-21 triple-overtime loss to Virginia Tech into half-coherent paragraphs. Another part had to do with the memory of the Thundering Herd's previous three hammerings by the Hokies, and how different this game was.

I mean, the cringe-inducing details of the 2009 game never go away. The 444 yards rushing, the Hokies taking a knee at game's end to hold the margin to 52-10, Mark Snyder wasting Aaron's Dobson's redshirt in his harebrained attempt at saving his head coaching keister ... did I forget anything?

(If any Herd fan out there is muttering "a loss is a loss is a loss," stop it.)

The final part came from realizing that if the Herd maintains this level of play the rest of the way, it goes no worse than 6-2 in Conference USA play. MU should be 3-1 one way or another, yes, but there's no need to jump ship.

(I hear it now: "They should run the table with their eyes closed." Stop it, stop it, stop it.)

I was calm despite thinking of the Herd's one truly bad coaching decision, to run up the middle three times and then send out kicker Justin Haig in overtime No. 1.

Haig does have a game-winner to his credit, that 45-yarder he sneaked over the crossbar last November against Houston. But conditions were perfect in that game - 50 degrees, sunny, little wind.

Your TV picture didn't do the conditions in Blacksburg the proper justice. As good as that Bermuda surface is, puddles expanded in the relentless rain and any kicker's plant foot stood the risk of being unplanted. Long snaps and holds were risky ventures.

Shoot, you can argue coach Doc Holliday's idea was the least conservative. Tech had figured out Marshall's running attack and the Herd offensive line was gassed, but Tommy Shuler and Devon "Moo Moo" Smith can bail you out on quick routes.

I'd have given better odds on a touchdown than Haig's 39-yarder, which was blocked by Derrick Hopkins. That meant the kick was way too low - Hopkins is the same 311-pound sun-blotting tackle who succumbed to rigor mortis (and Essray Taliaferro) on a potential game-ending fumble return in overtime No. 2.

As Holliday points out, coach Frank Beamer went down the same road in that second overtime, with substitute kicker Ethan Keyserling misfiring from 32 yards. Keyserling, kicking in pace of the suspended Cody Journell, was listed as a punter and wasn't even on the depth chart.

The Hokies did pick up a first down before centering the ball, though.

It wasn't the first time Holliday went too conservative and paid for it. I point to the Herd's overtime loss to West Virginia in 2010 - and not for the way the Herd defended the Mountaineers on the 96- and 98-yard drives that tied it. (Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Noel Devine were pretty good, you know.)

I'm talking about getting a 28-yard run by the soon-to-be-exiled Martin Ward, then clamming up near midfield. After running on third-and-10, MU punted and gave WVU 3:09 to go those 98 yards.

I've often thought sticking with your offense and trying to get a first down is a better play in such situations. Shoot, I even defend Snyder for delaying a field goal try and running another play in the 2005 Kansas State game, the one that turned into an interception and a 21-19 defeat.

(Remember, the kicker was Ian O'Connor, not known as "Mr. Clutch.")

If you saw my report card on my blog, you've noticed I split the coaching grade. Herd coaches deserve much credit for development and game-week prep. Say what you want about the Virginia Tech offense, but the Herd defense held it to two touchdowns in regulation.

And that second TD, the 2-yard pass to Willie Byrn that tied the game with 3:09 left, was almost flukish. Darryl Roberts, who is playing lights-out at cornerback, could well have knocked the ball into the stands. Instead, the ball slipped off his hand without changing direction.

As Byrn described it to Virginia writers: "Mainly luck."

The Hokies needed to tip the football gods on their way out of Lane Stadium, as that play illustrates.

My .02 on other topics:

  • If you're criticizing Cato's second interception, on that late third-and-15 bomb to Smith, stop it. Perfect play call, perfect throw, perfect route, the cornerback had no prayer and the Herd gets that touchdown the other 999 times.
  • Kyshoen Jarrett showed superhuman closing speed from his safety spot, got to the pass simultaneously and stole the ball in the resulting collision. It was the best defensive play I've seen in person in some time.

  • I detest when coaches call a timeout to "ice" the kicker. That usually helps the kicker instead of hurting - physically, as the kicker's heart rate returns to normal and he regathers his routine.
  • Accordingly, I rolled my eyeballs when Holliday called a timeout before Keyserling's 32-yard attempt in the second overtime. But as one of my pressbox colleagues noted, "He's not trying to ice him, he's trying to drown him."

    Point taken. Keyserling missed.

  • If you're questioning the use of the 5-foot-7 Smith as an "X" receiver, you can stop that, too. Davonte Allen is about 33 inches taller, but his game-ending fourth-down drop showed he isn't ready for prime time.
  • One of my Twitter followers sent me a picture of Allen with his gloves attached to his hip and not on his hands, with the ball already slipped loose. I'd argue he should have caught that pass without gloves, but I'll leave that to your debate.

  • You've been warned, Part I: Texas-San Antonio already has won one more C-USA game than some forecasters thought. The Roadrunners (2-2, 1-0) went west to Texas-El Paso and smoked the Miners 32-13.
  • Coach Larry Coker's team held UTEP to 99 yards rushing and 218 total, while veteran quarterback Eric Soza hits 12 different receivers in an 18-of-24, 204-yard night.

  • You've been warned, Part II: Don't get too excited about Marshall getting the week off before playing UTSA on Oct. 5. This team needs to get well physically, but recent history is not on its side - since 2005, the Herd is 2-12 with 10 or more days to prepare beforehand. That's 1-10 in the Snyder days and 1-2 under Holliday.
  • Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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