Herd Ready To Open MAC Play
You could call this week’s game between Marshall and Central Florida a matchup of the new kids on the block against the neighborhood bullies.
For Central Florida, after 23 years of competition on the gridiron at all four levels of NCAA play, the game will mark a new beginning. It will be the Knights’ first conference football game. The first time in school history that a game means more than just a win or loss.
For Marshall, winners of four consecutive Mid-American Conference titles from 1997-2000, the game also marks a beginning -- the beginning of a quest to “Take Back The MAC.”
The one thing that both teams share entering this first meeting is a feeling of disappointment. The Knights over back-to-back losses to Penn State and Arizona State to start the year. The Herd over a disappointing Thursday night performance against Virginia Tech that cost the team it’s national ranking.
Both have their sights firmly set on getting the season turned back in the right direction.
In last week’s 47-21 loss at Virginia Tech, many of the same old problems reared their ugly heads for the Herd. The Marshall defense was ripped for 395 rushing yards by the Hokies’ tandem of Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones. Herd receivers dropped no fewer than six passes, two of which were sure touchdowns, and fumbled two others after making the catch. Those turnovers, along with an interception, resulted in 21 points for Virginia Tech. Marshall also lost three points on a field goal that went bad.
The Herd’s kick return game also continued to struggle. Marshall had just one punt return, for no yards, and managed just 60 yards on five kickoff returns.
On the offensive side, the Herd was able to move the ball through the air against Tech, with senior quarterback Byron Leftwich wowing the national media members at the game with a 31-of-49 passing performance for 406 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Curtis Jones was the receiving star, hauling in a career-high 11 receptions for 164 yards. The Marshall ground game, however, was almost nonexistent, posting just 34 net yards on 16 attempts.
The loss cost the Herd 12 spots, from No. 17 to 29, in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, and 13 spots, from No. 16 to 29, in the Associated Press poll. The Hokies vaulted to seventh in both polls on the strength of the victory. The loss also dropped Marshall to 1-4 all-time against teams ranked in the two major top 25 polls.
This week’s game offers both teams an opportunity at redemption in front of a national television audience on ESPN2. The winner will also have a huge leg-up in the race for the MAC East Division title and an opportunity to host the MAC Championship game in December.
THE NUMBERS GAME: The Thundering Herd has played with mixed results over the years on September 20. Marshall is 5-3-1 all-time in those games. The Herd owns victories on this date over Omaha (62-6 in 1941), Steubenville (60-6 in 1947), Morehead State (48-14 in 1952, West Virginia state (9-0 in 1958) and Western Illinois (48-7 in 1997). Loss on this date for Marshall came at the hands of Morehead State (27-14 in 1969 and 19-16 in 1975) and VMI (17-3 in 1980). The lone tie on this date was against Eastern Kentucky (13-13 in 1986). Central Florida’s record book shows the Knights with a 3-0 all-time record on this date. Their victories came over St. Leo (55-0 in 1980), Valdosta State (10-7 in 1986) and Idaho (41-10 in 1997).
MORE NUMBERS: Since making the jump to Division I-A in 1997, Marshall has played at least one Division I-AA opponent each season. The Herd is 8-0 against Division I-AA teams since making the move, with an average margin of victory of 47.75-14.6. Under Coach Bob Pruett the Herd is a perfect 23-0 against Division I-AA teams.
CONFERENCE OPENERS: Going back to 1948, Marshall has played in a conference every year except the period between 1969-76. During that time the Herd has posted a 22-24-1 overall record in conference openers. That mark breaks down to a 5-1 mark in the Ohio Valley Conference (1948-52), an 8-12 record in the Southern Conference (1977-96) and a 9-11-1 mark in the Mid-American Conference (1953-68, 1977-present). In more recent years the Herd has fared well in league openers, having posted 10 consecutive conference opening victories dating back to 1992. During that time the Herd has beaten VMI, Georgia Southern (four times), Kent State, Akron, Buffalo and Bowling Green (twice).
MAC SUCCESS: Since rejoining the Mid-American Conference for the 1997 season the Thundering Herd has enjoyed incredible success. Marshall is 19-1 in MAC home games and is 38-6 overall against league teams since coming back into the league. The Herd was the overwhelming choice of the MAC News Media Association to win the 2002 MAC football championship in preseason voting.
TECH NOTES: The Herd had plenty of chances in the first half, but missed opportunities on offense left the Herd trailing the Hokies 20-0 at halftime, despite the fact that Marshall had outgained Tech. Three passes from Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich stood out as potential game-changing plays. With a second and goal at the Tech 5 in the first quarter, Leftwich tried to hit running back Franklin Wallace, but the potential TD pass was broken up by DeAngelo Hall. Leftwich followed with what looked to be a sure TD pass to Josh Davis on third down, but the sophomore was unable to hold on to the ball. That led to a failed field goal attempt. Later, in the second quarter with Marshall down 13-0, Leftwich fired toward junior Darius Watts on a streak pattern, catching Tech in a blitz. The pass fell incomplete off the fingertips of Watts for what would have been a 44-yard TD. The next pass from Leftwich was intercepted and, three plays later, Tech was in the end zone, turning a potential 13-7 game into a 20-0 score. Going into the game, senior receiver Curtis Jones was the only member of Marshall top four receivers without a 100-yard receiving game. That changed as Jones hauled in a career-high 11 catches for 164 yards. It was the 20th 100-yard or more receiving game for the Herd in the last 15 games, including the 2001 GMAC Bowl. Senior Curtis Head bounced back from a poor opening game with a strong performance against Tech. After the ASU game Head’s net punting average (punts minus returns) was just 5.7 yards, but Head produced a net average of 45.0 yards against Tech and a 49.0 overall average on three punts against the Hokies. Head also delivered on one of two onside kicks for the Herd. Sophomore Brad Bates did it all on Marshall’s final touchdown possession. Bates recovered the onside kick and was then on the receiving end of a 19-yard Leftwich touchdown pass. It was the first TD reception of Bates’ career.