Deferring to MU on coin toss
YES, I have blown a Twitter gasket on the issue, but I'm flipping to the dark side on the opening coin toss.
I am retracting my vociferous lobbying to always take the ball when winning the toss. I am fully on board with Marshall coach Doc Holliday's decisions to defer the option to the second half.
Yeah, I'm with the thought of getting the ball, driving the field and taking a 7-0 lead. I surely wouldn't have deferred the toss in 2007, when the injury-gashed Herd defense had no chance. Nor would I have deferred with last year's MU defense, aka "Rippon's Folly."
But this year, the data doesn't bring me any other conclusion than to show deference to the coaching staff.
The last two games have provided dramatic examples, albeit against inferior opposition. Against Southern Mississippi and Alabama-Birmingham, the Herd deferred, the defense forced a first-possession turnover and quickly cashed in for short-field touchdowns.
Then when the Herd got the ball in the second half, it drove for touchdowns and snapped what little spirit the Golden Eagles and Blazers had. Two choices to defer, 28 points to show for it.
OK, so UAB is not very good and Southern Miss is four touchdowns worse. The Blazers' defense was decimated by injury, the Eagles' defense was worse than awful and the Herd has 1,293 total yards to show for it.
So let's look at the other games. All told, Marshall has won the toss five times, going 4-1.
Against Miami of Ohio (granted, another bad team), the first drives of the first half were a wash, but the Herd scored a touchdown to start the second half.
The Herd took the ball against Gardner-Webb and Ohio, with very mixed results. The Herd was going to be successful no matter what against G-W, but Ohio forced a fumble on MU's first possession and cashed it in for a TD, then scored to start the second half - a 14-point swing.
Texas-San Antonio won the toss and took the ball, got stopped and then yielded a Marshall field goal. The opening of the second half was a wash, so slight advantage goes to the Herd.
In games Marshall did not win the toss, Virginia Tech and Florida Atlantic deferred and were rewarded. As you may painfully recall, the Hokies scored on a blocked punt on the Herd's first possession of the contest to take a 7-0 lead.
FAU picked off Rakeem Cato to start the game but missed a field goal, but the Owls didn't miss on starting the second half with a touchdown.
Look at the start of those nine games and the strategy for the 2013 Herd is simple: Win the coin toss and defer.
You may recall that I defended Marshall's Conference USA schedule before the season, declaring it was stronger than it would have been without the latest wave of realignment. Events of the first three-quarters of the season have shot that theory down.
Under the old rotation, the Herd's 2013 schedule would have been the same as it was in 2005 and 2009 - home games against UAB, Southern Miss and East Carolina plus Southern Methodist; road games against Central Florida, Memphis, Tulane and Texas-El Paso.
Only three foes remain the same - UAB, Southern Miss and ECU. The other home game was against UTSA, with FAU, MTSU, Tulsa and Florida International on the road.
Taking the 1-through-126 ratings updated by CBS Sportline, the average ranking of the "old" schedule is 86th with the median 98th. The average rank of the actual, post-realignment schedule is 98th, with a median of 102nd.
A few surprises have come into play here. UCF was supposed to be good but not a BCS contender, and Tulane is much better than expected. Tulsa was supposed to pillage C-USA's West Division, but has collapsed and fallen to 102nd.
Your 1-through-126 mileage may vary. If you're wondering, Marshall is a disappointing 79th.
Perhaps the most intriguing news of MU's 56-14 perforation came out of the safety positions. First, Taj Letman played his best game of the year at free safety, with A.J. Leggett sidelined with an injured ankle, a positive development.
Letman had 11 tackles, one forced fumble and two pass breakups. Two plays that stand out to me - first, his failure to get over to help cornerback Darryl Roberts on the 58-yard bomb to Jamarcus Nelson. That play set up a UAB touchdown that tied the game at 7.
The second such play was UAB's attempt in the third quarter to duplicate that long pass. This time, Letman not only ran over to Nelson in time, but got perfect position to bat it down.
"Coach [Chuck Heater, defensive coordinator] made the adjustment. [Nelson] made a double move, I ran over, saw the ball and I thought I could have had a pick," Letman said. "I had it in my hands, but he pulled it out."
The situation at strong safety borders on shocking. True freshman Tiquan Lang has started the last two games in what was thought to be a relief role for D.J. Hunter, who was knocked out briefly in the final minute of the Oct. 23 loss at MTSU.
Hunter entered in the fourth quarter of the Southern Miss game, which was surprising. When he was inserted in the fourth quarter of the UAB game, it was curious.
In the postgame press conference, Holliday was asked, and he served up the answer: "He's playing better. We're going to play the best players and the guys that produce, and the guys who make plays are going to play. Tiquan Lang's a really good football player, and he's going to continue to get better.
"And D.J. went in there and did some good things. We need them all. We've got five games in 27 days; now we're down to three, I guess. They're going to come quick, and we're going to need all of our players out there, and all of them playing well."
Steward Butler was the Herd's third amigo to top 100 yards rushing yards against UAB, doing so with his 49-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. But he just as well could have watched Essray Taliaferro and Kevin Grooms pile up their totals.
Butler didn't elaborate on how he landed in Holliday's doghouse, but confirmed that he did and didn't deny that he deserved it. He was left back for the trip to Florida Atlantic and was not used until the Southern Miss game.
"I blame that on me. I had a little bump in the road," Butler said. "I'm back on track, staying out of trouble. I'm doing what I have to do, so I'm back in the rotation and I've got to keep it that way.
"Playing for Doc Holliday, he's going to make that happen. He's going to make sure you're doing the right thing, on and off the field. If it was any other running back, he'd have done the same thing, because he can replace you really quick."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.