Road less traveled
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- With the spread-out nature of Conference USA, most championships in the 21 men's and women's sports are played on a campus.
There are only three exceptions: Men's golf, women's golf and rowing - not exactly sports in which ticket sales are a top priority.
The football championship is unique in that the campus site is determined late in the season and played at one of the teams' home sites. That will be the case at noon Saturday, as Marshall visits Rice in C-USA's ninth championship game.
In many respects, it's just like a regular-season game - one team flies to the event; the home team stays sequestered in a familiar hotel Friday night. But does that home team really have an advantage?
Maybe, but it's not overwhelming.
Of the eight games, the road team has won three. Perhaps the most memorable came in 2011, when Southern Mississippi rained on the Bowl Championship Series hopes of sixth-ranked Houston 49-28. The Golden Eagles intercepted Case Keenum twice, returning one for a touchdown, and scored on a blocked punt.
In 2008, East Carolina won 27-24 over Tulsa, intercepting David Johnson five times and getting a late Ben Hartman field goal. Johnson entered the game as the nation's top-rated passer.
In 2005, Tulsa upended Central Florida 44-27, shutting out the Knights after halftime before 51,978 at the Florida Citrus Bowl.
The history is not important to the Marshall team. This is: The Thundering Herd is playing better on the road this season.
Their three losses all came away from Huntington, but the margin was a total of five points in regulation, with the game at Virginia Tech going to triple overtime.
Two hinged on special teams miscues, the games at Ohio and Virginia Tech. The other one can be chalked up to porous defense.
The Herd had to ground out two of its three road wins, 24-23 over Florida Atlantic and 45-34 over Tulsa. The third was a gimme, 48-10 at woeful Florida International.
You can point out that those three opponents finished a combined 10-26 and MU's road losses came to teams a combined 23-13.
You would be correct, but the Herd hasn't always conquered losing teams on the road. Going 10-49 on the road from 2005-12, the Herd lost to Alabama-Birmingham twice, among others.
One of the those 10 wins came against a 7-6 Rice team last year in a wacky 54-51, double-overtime affair on a hot, sticky afternoon in a largely empty Rice Stadium. Owls quarterback Taylor McHargue had more than 450 yards total offense and nearly scored the winning touchdown in the final minute of regulation.
"Yeah, it was a crazy game," said defensive end Alex Bazzie. "I remember running there right before overtime, he was running down there getting ready to dive in the end zone and the game could have ended right there. But instead he fell short and it went to overtime."
The last time Marshall finished .500 or better on the road was 2003, when it went 4-3. The last time Marshall has beaten a team that finished with nine or more wins was also 2003, when it upset Kansas State in September. The Wildcats finished 11-2, winning the Big 12 championship.
Saturday, the Herd will face a Rice team with nine wins in the bank, at 9-3. In previous years - the previous decade - this was a certain Herd loss. Now, Marshall is favored by 51/2 points to win a high-stakes game on the road.
But as receiver Tommy Shuler tells it, this week's game is much like the others.
"We're just going to take it as another away game, just like we did in the regular season," he said. "We're going to go out there, prepare hard, work hard. There's a conference championship on it [but] nothing's going to change about it. It's just the same thing, another away game.
"We can't play the bowl game at home, so we might as well start it out here."
The Herd may be boarding a plane this weekend Friday for Houston, but they're feeling more at home in Huntington during the week. A five-game winning streak and East Division championship will make a town happy, that's for sure.
"I've talked to a lot of people, came across a lot of faces, and everybody seems so happy," Bazzie said. "The city, the community just seems so happy, almost like it's Christmas around here. People seem to be in the holiday spirit - it's a great feeling around here."
But that comes with a challenge.
"With that being said, with the great feeling that's also with us players, it's like a little chip on our shoulders," Bazzie said. "The world's on our shoulders right now, because we know we've got to make the community happy, we have to bring back that 'W.' "
Contact Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.