BOGACZYK: Herd Looks ahead, and It’s What Doc Ordered
The Word on the Herd-Nov. 19, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – In the eyes of college football coaches, the sport is a week-to-week proposition.
Coaches don’t want their teams focusing on anyone except who’s next … but there is one exception, and Marshall football is living it this week.
With an open date after games 11 straight weekends, the Herd can look ahead – and Coach Doc Holliday is more than OK with it – to the de-facto Conference USA East Division championship game at noon on Thanksgiving Friday at Western Kentucky.
This one is no turkey leftovers meal for lunch.
Truth be told, the Herd (9-2, 6-1) has been looking forward to this one for a long time – perhaps as far back as the same holiday weekend last year, when the Hilltoppers ruined Marshall’s bid for an unbeaten season with a 67-66 overtime victory at Edwards Stadium.
And if the Herd can overcome high-powered host WKU (8-2, 6-0), it should also take care of one slim edge – in the computer rankings -- Marshall currently holds as a potential host for the Dec. 5 C-USA Championship Game … more on that later.
“As far as having an open date, it was needed,” Holliday said at his Tuesday news conference. “Eleven straight weeks is a grind, so this gives us a chance to catch our breath a little bit … We have a great challenge ahead, as you all know, but we’re going to catch our breath a little bit this week and go at it next week.”
The other reason the Herd’s lone open date couldn’t have come at a better time is Holliday’s team knows what’s next after being riddled in by Hilltoppers quarterback Brandon Doughty for an Edwards Stadium-record eight scoring passes in last year’s game that featured a wild, 49-42 first half.
The Herd coach – his teams are 32-7 in the last three seasons – said Marshall learned plenty about WKU, then in its first C-USA season.
“One thing is that quarterback is a great player,” Holliday said. “He’s a tremendous player and I have great respect for him and what he’s done. They have great skill players and, at the end of the day, you have to play great defense.
“It was just a crazy game and hopefully it doesn’t get to that point this year. At some point, whoever plays the best defense will win that game (Nov. 27). Hopefully that’s us.”
The Hilltoppers were off last weekend, and on Saturday go to FIU (5-6, 3-4), which was blistered 52-0 by Marshall last Saturday in the Herd’s first blanking of a major college foe since the 2003 finale over Ohio. If WKU wins as expected in Miami, the Herd and ‘Toppers will not only be playing for a title-game spot, but also to become a 10-win team.
While Marshall has two double-digit winning seasons in a row, Western hasn’t reached that total since winning the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA championship in 2002 in the final coaching season for Jack Harbaugh. WKU is in its seventh FBS season, and a ninth win Saturday would be its high at that level.
“Good football teams have a lot of tendencies already (by this late juncture of the season),” Holliday said. “We had a lot of tendencies a year ago and we have some that are happening now because you’re pretty good at what you do at this point. I don’t think, as successful as they have been on offense, that they’re going to change an awful lot.
“They lost a great running back (injured Leon Allen), but they guys who have stepped in there have done a great job. They had a week off last week, so I don’t feel sorry for them not having one this week. They had an opportunity last week to do what we’re doing this week -- to get their kids back. I think by the time we get ready to go next Friday, the majority of our football team will feel pretty good.”
At WKU, Marshall will be trying to become the first C-USA team to play in three consecutive football championship games since the Texas-based league went to divisional play in 2005 following realignment and expansion into an all-sports league.
Holliday and his team understand that getting there, however, will be a tall order.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions on keeping their (WKU) offense off the field,” he said. “If you look at time of possession, we’re about in the middle of the pack (fifth among 13 teams) as far as our league is concerned. Some of that will go into it, but at the end of the day, we have to play great defense. We have to find a way to win the kicking game and we’ve been pretty good at that all year. That needs to continue. “The issue last year … we didn’t play great defense, but we turned the ball over offensively (four Rakeem Cato interceptions), too. When you’re playing a team as good as they are, you have to take care of the football. You have to get stops in the red zone.
“It will be a great challenge for us, but I like our team. I like where we are right now and we’ll show up and play.”
# # #
The C-USA divisional races are pretty cut-and-dried. While Marshall and WKU control their own destiny in the East – no matter the result of the WKU-FIU game – Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss are in the same situation in the West Division.
The Bulldogs (7-3, 5-1) and resurgent Golden Eagles (7-3, 5-1) will meet next week in Ruston, La. – 24 hours after the Herd-WKU kickoff – to determine the West winner. Because head-to-head is the first tiebreaker, this Saturday’s games (Tech at UTEP; Old Dominion at USM) don’t matter in the title picture. As for those aforementioned computer rankings, they won’t come into play if the C-USA title game is WKU-LaTech or Marshall-Southern Miss. The East champ would host the title game in those scenarios, because of head-to-head regular-season wins.
If it’s WKU and Southern Miss, Western would host the title game because the Hilltoppers have a comfortable lead over the Golden Eagles in the average of those five computer rankings. However, if it’s Marshall and Louisiana Tech vying for the crown for a second straight season …
Entering the Tech-UTEP game this Saturday, the Herd has only a narrow .34 edge – 57.83 to 58.17 -- over the Bulldogs in those rankings.
However, a Marshall win at WKU – the top-ranked C-USA team – would likely vault the Herd into a host role for the championship because Tech probably would not catch the Herd with wins over UTEP (4-6, 2-4) and Southern Miss. The Miners are ninth among C-USA teams, with USM fourth.
The only way that could change is if Western were to lose at FIU on Saturday and have the Hilltoppers’ computer number drop significantly.