Marshall fans' hopes raised, crushed again
HOUSTON -- It seems to be a recurring theme: Just when Doc Holliday's Marshall team appears to be taking its fans on a magic-carpet ride, it yanks the rug away.
Just look over the record.
The 2011 Thundering Herd played then-powerful Southern Mississippi on a six-day week and beat the Golden Eagles 26-20 in a thriller in Huntington. The next week, MU players should have walked home from Ohio after that 44-7 disaster.
The Herd won at Louisville, then offensively imploded in the rain at Central Florida. Escaped with a home win over Rice, then got hammered at Houston. Dominated Alabama-Birmingham in unexpected fashion, then collapsed at Tulsa.
The 2012 Herd couldn't win more than one in a row, but that season was best summed up in the 12th game, at East Carolina - Marshall fell behind 28-7, rallied to lead by a touchdown with 1:55 left and couldn't keep it.
Fast-forward to the last two weekends, in which the Herd first played its best game of the year, then laid an egg Saturday at Rice. A large egg, maybe even an omelet.
Give the Owls credit, for they are fielding their most complete, veteran team in their nine seasons on Conference USA. Rice laid a smack-down on Marshall by the slightly deceptive score of 41-24, seizing its first outright conference championship since the Eisenhower administration.
I don't think the Herd was embarrassed, though. But you look down the offensive play-by-play and you know MU quarterback Rakeem Cato and company made a few critical mistakes.
Think about this: On the Herd's first possession, Gator Hoskins uncharacteristically dropped a pass that would have converted a third-and-15. Possession No. 2 ended at the Rice 41-yard line with Hoskins wide open and the ball thrown out of reach.
It wasn't the greatest day for Cato. He acknowledged his interception, the one that ended the first possession of the second half, was a bad ball. You can't throw bad passes against Rice's secondary, which to me looked better than that of Virginia Tech.
(Don't believe me? On Marshall's last play in an overtime loss to the Hokies, Davonte Allen got open down the sideline. Against Rice, the only Herd receiver seen open on the sideline was Tommy Shuler, working from the inside.)
Perhaps those three mistakes wouldn't swing the result, but the momentum would have taken a different track. The Herd wanted to start fast on the road, and start the second half just as quickly. It failed on both counts against a savvy team with an excellent game plan.
Oh, yeah, did we mention game plan? If the battle of the coaching staffs were a boxing match, the referee might have had to stop it early.
Rice offensive coordinator John Reagan should have received a game ball. His play calling in the first series, perhaps aided at the line by quarterback Taylor McHargue and Wildcat back Luke Turner, was brilliant.
The Owls started with three straight passes, which the Herd probably didn't expect. The third toss got senior Jordan Taylor matched against Herd freshman Taj Letman, a mismatch in experience that resulted in a 14-yard gain.
Big back Charles Ross introduced himself the next three plays, gaining 18 yards. Turner took the next snap and was stuffed, but McHargue re-entered and threw to Taylor for 10 yards against Derrick Thomas, the cornerback subbing for the much-missed Darryl Roberts.
Ross ran for 2 yards, which only lulled the Herd into confidence in defending the run. That defense was sucked into "the box" on the subsequent toss sweep to Turner, whose role was to throw only if the pass was wide, wide open.
Which it was. That was Donte Moore's only catch, and it went for a touchdown.
"We saw their Wildcat and had a package for that," Holliday said. "It wasn't something that we hadn't seen."
But they clearly weren't prepared for it. As you may have read in my game coverage, Turner summed it up: "They didn't understand what we were doing."
And Marshall fans don't understand how a team that looks like BCS material one weekend at home can get so thoroughly smoked the next weekend on the road, against a team with similar (at best) quality of talent.
Can't blame 'em.
All the coaching purists will rail on me, but I will offer some novel advice on the two-point conversion.
If you're down 24 and score a touchdown, go for two. If you're down 16 and score a touchdown, go for two. If you're down by 11 and score a touchdown, go for two.
Fourth quarter, third quarter, second quarter, first quarter, doesn't matter.
Have a package of two-point plays, believe in them, use them. If things do not work out, go from there.
There is no excuse for Holliday to concede a 17-point, three-score deficit in the fourth quarter of a conference championship game. And there is really, really, no excuse for him to do it twice.
And if you do settle for a 17-point deficit and are kicking off from the 50 after a personal foul penalty, again in the fourth quarter, it's time for an onside kick. The risk factor is nil at that point.
I'm afraid Holliday still has a little too much Don Nehlen in his blood, as far as game management. He may need to think WWUD - What Would Urban (Meyer) do?
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.