Oct. 11, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - When Marshall heads to Southern Mississippi for an important Oct. 20 Conference USA football date, there is something the foes will have in common besides a frustrating first half to their seasons.
The teams have faced two of the toughest schedules to date in C-USA. You can look it up.
The Thundering Herd (2-4, 1-1 C-USA) has four losses to teams that are a combined 19-3, with three of those defeats by a combined 20 points. The Golden Eagles (0-5, 0-1) head to UCF (3-2, 1-0) on Saturday following up a 2011 conference title with their worst start since 1976.
While the Herd fell at then-No. 11 West Virginia and has lost at Purdue (51-41) and at home to unbeaten Ohio (27-24) and 5-1 Tulsa (45-38), Southern Miss opened with a loss at No. 16 Nebraska and later fell at home to a No. 17 Louisville. Boise State has dropped from the polls before it won at USM, but is back at No. 24.
First-year Coach Ellis Johnson's Golden Eagles also lost at Western Kentucky, and dropped a C-USA date at home to East Carolina and now goes to UCF. Marshall, open this week, had its wins at Rice and at home over Western Carolina.
It can't -- and won't - get any tougher than it already has been for the two C-USA East Division teams, and Herd Coach Doc Holliday offered some diagnoses, prescriptions and prognoses for the second half of the Marshall season earlier this week.
The Herd returned to workouts Tuesday with running and lifting, and worked in shots Wednesday. After full-pads drills Thursday and Friday, the players are off Saturday before the team turns to game preparations for the trip to Hattiesburg.
"We're going to focus on ourselves to get better as a football team," Holliday said. "The bye week, midseason, it comes at a great time. We've got to focus on becoming better fundamentally technique-wise, focus on selves and start back Sunday on Southern Miss.
"We're not near where we need to be. My standards and expectations are extremely high, and for us to get where we've got to go, we've got to beat a Tulsa (a 45-38 home loss last Saturday). That's one of the better teams in our league and that's not happening, it didn't happen and it's disappointing.
"We've got to go to work and get better. Our goal is always to win a conference championship. To do that, you've got to line up against a Tulsa at the end of the game and find a way to make plays to beat `em. You've got to get better so it does happen."
One of Holliday's wants the remainder of this week is to have more of the Herd play healthy.
"It's just important (to practice). We've got guys banged up, and it's hard to get better when you don't practice. We've got an awful lot of guys out there playing (games) who aren't practicing. You look out there during the week and there are a lot of red jerseys (no contact).
"Those guys aren't tackling, they aren't doing the things you have to do to become better football players. So, we've got to be smart as coaches this week so when we line up on Sunday to begin game preparation, those guys are able to practice and tackle.
"Knock on wood (the Herd hasn't been as hurt as it could be). We have some guys, for example (center Chris) Jasperse has been a boot for about four weeks and he goes out and plays 90 plays. That's not good. We're going through the same thing with (right tackle) Garrett Scott. Our two corners have been in red jerseys for three weeks. They haven't been able to go through tackling drills and things they need to do to become better players ... no doubt this open date comes at a good time. We've got to get some guys back and we will. When Sunday rolls around, I don't foresee anybody that won't be able to go out there and practice. We have to get them ready to go play."
The Herd coach acknowledged that tackling remains an issue for his defense, which has ranked near the bottom nationally in several categories all season. And he said you only get better at tackling by practicing that, too.
"It's hard," Holliday said when asked about limited tackling from red-jerseyed defenders. "You get better by practicing and going out and being physical and live tackling, actually doing it. When you're standing out there in red jerseys and tagging off every time ... unfortunately, if we could tag that guy off, we'd (be more successful), but the game's not played that way.
"If you're out there in red jerseys all the time and not able to work on fundamentals and techniques, you regress as a player. That's why we need these guys back, especially by Sunday, because we need to start getting better, and I think we will.
"We're not where we want to be. I've talked all along that our defense is nowhere near where we want it to be. I think some guys have become better. We have to continue this week and next week to build on the progress that our players have made. Are we there yet? No, but we have to continue to work hard to get there. I think the two safeties (Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha) are starting to feel comfortable. They've played pretty solid. I think (safety-turned-linebacker) D.J. Hunter is starting to step up and make some plays. The defensive front has played better. Again, as a group we are not nearly where we want to be, but I think they've all made some progress."
Although the Herd has been on the field for more plays than any team in the country (ranking first in total snaps on offense and second on defense), Holliday said he doesn't think his team is fatigued physically. He also said it remains strong mentally, despite the frustration at a second straight 2-4 start.
"They're in agony," Holliday said. "Again, they've gone out and done everything we've asked and played extremely hard and come up short, unfortunately, in those games. Now, we've got to find a way for us to get where they want to go. And we've got to find a way to win those games against good people. We will. We will.
"They're frustrated because they care and I'd be really concerned if they weren't, to be honest with you. And that's why I've said all along I really like this football team, because they care, football is important to them, they work extremely hard and do everything they can to prepare to go out and win. That's why I like them.
"So, if they keep doing what they're doing, good things are going to happen for `em; I don't think there's any doubt about that."
Holliday's first two Marshall teams started 1-5 and 2-4, respectively, but finished with 5-7 and 7-6 records. He said there's no option but to make it three in a row in 2012.
"That needs to happen again, for obvious reasons," he said. "We just have to. The kids have stayed the course, they haven't flinched. They go out every day and go to work, and if they keep working like they are, good things are going to happen for them and this program."
Holliday said one way to turn things around is in turnover margin, where his 2011 team prospered. The Herd is minus-7 in turnovers to date, although practices include "ball drills and strip drills" aplenty.
"There are two areas we have to do a better job with, not turning it over and creating turnovers," Holliday said. "We're not doing a good enough job in either one of those. We're not getting `em, and we're giving `em up, and we've got to correct both issues if we are going to move forward as a football team.
"We're not coaching any differently than we coached a year ago and we did a good job then at this point of the season at creating turnovers. We need to do a better job, both ways, of getting it done."
Asked to assess special teams, Holliday distributed praise on the punt and kickoff teams, although he added he wasn't happy with the latter in the Tulsa loss. He said the kickoff return game has "been disappointing," and said punt returns aren't much of a factor because the Herd's "philosophy is we're going to block punts, and we have blocked some (two)."
Holliday also dug into a subject on which he's been one of the nation's most recognized coaches for three decades - recruiting. An open week on a schedule provides opportunities for coaches to hit the road, and all of his assistants did just that Sunday and Monday. Some also stayed out Tuesday.
"Most kids we're out on now have already been evaluated, and we know who we want," Holliday said. "You only have X-amount of time to get where you want, so we're targeting, No. 1, our needs; No. 2, kids we want.
"We're not going to waste our time looking at kids where we're not sure whether they can play or not, because you only have X-number of days you can get out. Because of the season we make sure we're going after the kids we really want.
"Then, there's always the chance a kid that pops up somewhere that will have a great season, like somewhere in south Florida, where they might develop a little later, that type of thing, and they've had a great year, and you want to check it out.
"Our goal ... we need to sign three receivers, outside guys, not inside guys. Of course, we've got the commitments we already have. We need a couple of linebackers, probably one more offensive lineman ... one safety and we have to hold onto what we have. That's about it."