Doc has his prescription
ANNAPOLIS, Md. - For three-decade coach Doc Holliday, going to bowl games never gets old - as long as his team is on the winning side.
He has lost count of how many bowls he has coached in his several capacities at four different schools, but that number will hit 24 when he takes his Marshall team onto the field today for the Military Bowl. This is the sixth rendition of that game, which has moved to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
For the record, Holliday is 11-12 in bowls, having suffered through West Virginia's eight-game losing streak. He had better luck at North Carolina State, Florida, his second WVU tour and at Marshall, where he guided the Thundering Herd to a win in the 2011 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
He has seen different schedules of preparation and different mindsets on game day. For the former, he stuck with a simple formula.
"We gave them four days off to give them time to recover a little bit," Holliday said Thursday. "We had an extra week of practices for that [Conference USA] championship game; we've had 11 practices prior to this game.
"There's about a whole spring ball [season] where we had the opportunity to not only develop our young players, but hopefully to keep that rust off our offense, defense and special teams. For the most part, our kids have done a great job practicing."
The Herd (9-4) will need to keep the rust off when it plays Maryland at 2:30 p.m. today, and it will need to start better than it did in the Conference USA championship game 20 days ago at Rice. That was a disaster on both sides of the ball - the Owls burned the Herd on a halfback option to begin the scoring, and didn't allow the Herd to score until they had a 14-0 lead. Rice won 41-24.
This MU team must avoid a repeat against Maryland, which is 7-5 but was one field goal away from finishing with a 3-0 run. Quarterback C.J. Brown, who scored the winning touchdown in overtime to beat Virginia Tech, is healthy, and the defense has shown it can get after the quarterback.
Virginia Tech lends an interesting comparison, for the Herd also went to overtime in Blacksburg, losing in three overtimes in the rain.
"Well, they beat Virginia Tech, so they definitely matched up with them extremely well," Holliday said. "Anytime you play against an ACC, going into the Big Ten-type of team, regardless, they're going to have players. They're located close to this D.C. area, there are a lot of players around and Randy Edsall's done a tremendous job recruit.
"They've got some players, but we've got some good players, too. So I'm anxious to see how we match up."
Brown, who would lead the Terrapins in rushing if not for the deduction in sack yardage, is the focal point on that offense. He is coming off a career-type game at North Carolina State, passing for 259 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 138 and three more scores. Marshall's defense, which is one of the most improved in the country, is aiming for redemption after Rice burned it for 487 total yards and 41 points.
The Terrapins' defense, for all its problems in Atlantic Coast Conference play, has shown it can get to the quarterback with 36 sacks. With hybrid linebacker Marcus Whitfield and defensive end Andre Monroe combining for about half that number, the Herd offensive line knows who to worry about the most.
The ability to run would be a bonus, but that may be tough, as the Terrapins are averaging 150 rushing yards against, with an eight-game ACC schedule. They held Virginia Tech to 54 yards on the ground.
Marshall's front five will have to be ready to pass block, for certain.
"Their pass rush is probably the best we're going to see all year," said Herd right tackle Clint Van Horn. "Their ends and the guys inside do a tremendous job with their packages, what they bring at us, the pressures, the blitzes. They play extremely hard every single down, especially the defensive ends - they're so good, they're so long, they're so athletic.
"It's what you expect from an ACC opponent."
Plenty of other subplots may play out today. Have Marshall's special teams sharpened after midseason struggles, and has Devon Smith healed from minor injury enough to take a return for a score? How much will the Herd's fan section be devoured by Maryland, which is playing a near-true home game?
And will the Herd, somewhat heavy with upperclassmen, have the right mindset for a tough football game? Or will it have been hypnotized by monument tours and other bowl functions?
That's a major point with Holliday, who remembers all the actual bowl games he has coached and very little of the bowl-week festivities. He points to his first bowl as a head coach, when the Herd persevered against Florida International two years ago in St. Petersburg, Fla.
He wants his team's attitude in that game repeated this afternoon.
"At that point, if they're not in the right frame of mind you've got no chance. Bottom line, you'd better be prepared when you leave the hotel the day of the game - in this game, the switch just doesn't go off and on."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.