HUNTINGTON - Is this Marshall team for real as far as Conference USA goes, or is it still stuck on the middle rungs of the league's ladder?
That is pretty much the question, as far as the homecoming crowd today at Joan C. Edwards Stadium is concerned. West Division favorite Tulsa, with multiple offense and league-leading defense, seems to be the perfect barometer of the Thundering Herd's progress under third-year coach Doc Holiday.
Kickoff time is at 3:30 p.m., with CBS Sports Network (channel 512 on Suddenlink digital cable) airing the game.
Through its opening-week rout by West Virginia, easy win over Western Carolina, tough loss to Ohio, overtime shootout win at Rice and loss to Purdue, it hasn't been easy to gauge where the Herd will fit in the C-USA hierarchy. The league is certainly down from mid-pack and below, but is the top of the league comparable to that in recent years?
And can the Herd (2-3 overall, 1-0 C-USA) join the division race? With an open week following, Marshall enjoys a unique opportunity to prove itself today.
"You watch [Tulsa] on tape and see what they're about," said Herd coach Doc Holliday. "They definitely deserve what everyone is saying about them."
What is everyone saying about Tulsa? Some part of the following:The Hurricane (4-1, 2-0) has a senior-loaded defense that has risen to the top of the league in several categories, and leads the nation with 26 sacks. Even in a 49-42 shootout last week at Alabama-Birmingham, Tulsa yielded just 338 yards - exactly its season average.Tulsa is leading the league in scoring and rushing with an offense that can run any formation in any personnel grouping in any tempo, with anybody getting the ball. The top four backs - Trey Watts, Ja'Terian Douglas and Alex Singleton and H-back Willie Carter - are multiyear veterans. The receivers aren't experienced, but they're mostly 6 feet and taller.The Hurricane is itching to get back atop the West Division for the first time since 2008 and win its second C-USA championship since it entered the league with Marshall and four other schools in 2005. Last year, Tulsa went 7-0 in league play before falling hard to Houston. In 2010, the impediment was Southern Methodist.
After years of searching for an identity, Marshall has found one. It includes:A suddenly outrageous offense averaging 92.5 scrimmage plays, 559 total yards and 41 points. Last week, Purdue let Tommy Shuler patrol the short middle and he took advantage, catching a school-record 19 passes from Rakeem Cato.
The "baby backs" running attack of Remi Watson, Steward Butler and Kevin Grooms can keep a pass-expectant defense honest, as it did two weeks ago against Rice.A defense which is finding its way, from front to back. The 44.4 points allowed per game ranks the Herd last among the 120 teams ranked in Division I FBS, and the total defense has barely sneaked back under 500 yards per game.Much like Tulsa, Marshall is itching to get to the top of the East Division, a place the Herd hasn't seen since entering C-USA. A win makes the Herd 2-0 in the league, joining Central Florida as the only unbeaten teams in the division. (Memphis opens its league season today at home against Rice.)And finally, Marshall is trying to reverse a 59-17 loss at Tulsa last year, a game in which the Herd was decked right after the opening bell.
There it is. Consider it an undercard to West Virginia's game at Texas, a potential marquee game in Conference USA, or whatever. One thing for sure: The game serves as a measuring stick for both Marshall and Tulsa.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com">dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.