Oct. 9, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – There is a sport besides horseshoes in which close does count. In football, Marshall has clanged off the stake more than once this season.
The Thundering Herd has an off week at midseason before going to Southern Mississippi on Oct. 20. Coach Doc Holliday’s frustrated team (2-4, 1-1) isn’t going to get any sympathy from those Golden Eagles, who as defending Conference USA champions are 0-5 (0-1 C-USA) and headed for a tough one at UCF before Marshall visits for a Saturday night kickoff.
Herd junior cornerback Derrick Thomas said Monday that he and his teammates aren’t exactly enjoying the break, considering what has transpired. Then, maybe that’s a good thing.
“At the end of the day, the first half of the season is gone and we can make it permanent, or we can plan to better ourselves from here,” said Thomas, a Penn State transfer who made his second Herd start in Saturday’s 45-38 loss to Tulsa. “We can’t sit and dwell all over the past. We’re 2-4 right now.
“Our goal is to win the rest of our games and put ourselves in position to do something at the end of the season, so that’s what we want to go for as a team, what we’re working towards.
“We lost a couple close games, one in conference, so I think we’ve still got a good chance to win an East Division championship. It’s still our goal. All our goals we had at the beginning of the season are still there, so we’re still working towards that.”
Since a season-opening lopsided loss at now-No. 5 West Virginia, the Herd has fallen to unbeaten Ohio by 3 points, at Purdue by 10 and to Tulsa by 7. The four teams that have topped the Herd are a combined 19-3, with their losses to ranked Notre Dame and Michigan, and to 4-1 Iowa State, which is third in “receiving votes” in the AP poll this week.
The Herd knows – in painful fashion – how close can count. Thomas said the Herd is not that far from 5-1.
“Like, we talked about it. We always talk about it,” Thomas said. “We lost three out of those four games by a total of 20 points, so it’s tough to lose games that close.
“This is a brand new half of the season, a brand new start. I just think we’ve got to put it all together.
“The biggest thing I can say on our side of the ball is we need to make plays when our number is called, and we’ve got to make tackles. We miss more tackles than we should, and a lot of times when it’s time to make big plays, we don’t make them. That’s something we’re going to work on during this bye week.”
The Herd defense has been on the field for 489 plays in six games (81.5 per game), and only Arizona’s 3-3-5 odd stack has been out there more (494 plays) among 124 FBS teams. Thomas said it’s not weariness that’s hurting Marshall.
“Over the summer, I watched these guys work out a lot,” said Thomas, a 6-foot, 181-pounder from Greenbelt, Md. “Before I came down here, I saw a couple of their workouts, so I don’t think it’s physical at all. I don’t even think it’s mental.
“I just think we’ve got to find a way to put ourselves in some of these close games at the end. I mean, we have a lot of penalties, baby mistakes that go on through the games that cause us to lose games. I don’t think it’s anything that’s too big, or can’t be fixed. I think all our problems can be fixed and I think they will be.”
Thomas said he saw the Herd make progress in the second half of the loss at Purdue, and in allowing 340 yards total offense to West Division-leading Tulsa – 155 yards below the Herd’s total defense average entering the game.
“I feel like our defense is getting better, playing better as a unit, with all the guys being new, we had a lot of transfers, guys starting for the first time. I think the defense starting to put it together.
Thomas smiled when asked about a diminished number of pass-defense chances with Herd foes throwing the ball less. He dropped what appeared to be a certain interception against Tulsa, and he was thankful the Golden Hurricane didn’t capitalize on that series
“It gets kind of boring back there, but you can’t fall asleep,” said Thomas, who played all 70 Tulsa offensive plays, with injuries curbing the Herd’s cornerback depth. “All it takes is one pass over a corner or safety’s head and that’s seven points that can change the game. Like I said, we lost three games by a total of 20 points, so one play can change the game for us.”
Thomas’ assimilation into the Herd program and his quick pickup of the Herd’s defensive schemes were aided by free safety Okechukwu Okoroha, the Boston College transfer who was Thomas’ teammate at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Maryland.
The fact that Okoroha and fellow BC graduate Dominick LeGrande came to the Herd as transfers right before Thomas arrived aided Thomas’ welcome and made the learning curve easier in Huntington, he said.
He also joined a unit that was trying to build some cohesion as the season began. The cornerback is one of nine defenders who has made a first Herd start at some point this season.
Thomas hopes what’s past is also past from his time in a Marshall uniform. Asked the difference between the Herd defense and the one he played in for Penn State – he played in 12 games in two seasons there -- Thomas pointed to the next six games and beyond in his answer.
“The biggest difference I see in this defense is experience,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of athletes on this defense. There’s no lack of players on this defense, but the thing a lot of guys are missing is just experience, and I can see the guys who lack experience getting better and better each week.
“I think, eventually, this is going to be a great defense. I think when all these first-year starters gain more time in each game, and get things out of the game they don’t see in practice, the situations, everything will be working out cool with that.”