Dec. 26, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Doc Holliday is coaching in his 23rd bowl game on Friday afternoon. He’s been part of a national championship staff and he’s been in most of the biggest of the bowls.
Yet, for Holliday, the Military Bowl against Maryland might be his own “granddaddy of them all.”
This time, he’s the boss, not an assistant coach, and his Marshall program is turning the corner – “changing the culture,” he likes to say – primed for a big future in Conference USA.
It’s his 51st game as a head coach, and he loses some significant seniors after the game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., but way, way more of the talent on a 9-4 Herd team returns in 2014.
Marshall goes for a double-digit figure in the win column for the first time since the 2002 team finished 11-2 in quarterback Byron Leftwich’s senior season. He’s an honorary Herd captain for the Military Bowl. The Herd is 1-9 all-time against ACC members, the victory at Clemson to open the ’99 season.
This is no longer a program that’s happy to go 6-6 and land in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl as it did in 2011 – for Holliday’s first postseason game as a head coach.
He’s four years in, and after Friday, only one player will remain in the program from prior to Holliday’s Dec. 17, 2009 hire – and that guy is the 2013 team MVP, defensive tackle James Rouse, who plans to return for a sixth year after missing almost two full seasons due to injuries and two major surgeries.
So, this game with the Terrapins (7-5) -- heading from the ACC to the Big Ten Conference after this game – looms large. It’s Marshall first game in its football history in the Old Line State, and the Herd’s first in a bowl against a power conference team since falling to Ole Miss in the 1997 Motor City Bowl.
It is an opportunity for the Herd, but Holliday hopes it can be a stepping stone, and not the next step.
There’s a difference. I asked the 56-year-old coach about the Military Bowl being the next step, and you have to negotiate one to get to the next rung of the ladder.
Marshall lost the C-USA Championship Game at Rice three weeks ago. Did the Herd have to get there and experience something for the first time, before learning how to win it the next time?
“I didn’t feel that way,” Holliday said. “I don’t buy that. You shouldn’t have to get there and experience it before you can win it the next time to take the next step, but unfortunately, we did. So, we’ve got to learn from it, and we have and we will. We’ve got to move on.
“The great thing about being in that (C-USA title) game was we knew we had another one to play, and it’s Friday. These kids have got an opportunity to bounce back, an opportunity to send the seniors out the right way.
“This has been a tremendous senior class. They’ve provided great leadership and they’ve played the best football of their careers this season. To me and our football team, we want to send them out the right way, and this can also set the tone for a big season next year.”
On Thursday, Holliday decided to do something different. Usually, when the Herd is on the road, it travels on the game’s eve late in the afternoon and goes straight to the team hotel, eschewing the opposing stadium walk-through many teams take.
This time, following the Military Bowl Luncheon that feted both teams here, Holliday and his assistants and the 65 players who will dress for the game boarded buses for the trip east on U.S. 50 for a walk-through at the Naval Academy’s stadium.
Maybe it’s good that the Herd can see some of what it’s getting into.
“The opportunity is important,” Holliday said. “I think anytime you get the opportunity to showcase your program on a national stage it’s big. We’re the only game on Friday afternoon in that time slot, and it’s on ESPN, so a lot of people will be sitting around on vacation after Christmas watching this game.
“Anytime you can showcase the program and Marshall University on a national stage against a team the caliber of Maryland, it’s a great chance for us.”
So, how does the Herd deal with Maryland, which somehow landed no players on any of the three All-ACC teams. But coach Randy Edsall has playmakers on both sides of the ball like mobile quarterback C.J. Brown and linebacker Cole Farrand, who had 23 tackles in the Terps’ loss to Clemson this season.
Think about that … 23 tackles against Clemson. That’s not 23 against East Siwash State.
So, what’s Doc’s prescription?
“When you look at Maryland on offense, it starts with the quarterback,” Holliday said. “He’s a guy who likes to keep the ball in his hands, keep control of the game with his arm or running the football. They have lots of assigned runs for him.
“I think they’re a physical football team and I think there’s no doubt they’re going to come in and try to run the football on us and at us. No question, we’ve got to do a great job stopping the run.
“Defensively, they’re very athletic at linebacker, very physical up front and they’ve got athletes in the secondary. They’re what you’d expect in an ACC team. It’s going to be a great challenge for us on both sides of the ball.
“We’ve got to do what we do and offensively, got to stay balanced -- run it as well as throw it and for the most part, we’ve done that all year. That has to happen for us to be successful over at Navy on Friday. On special teams, we’ve got to be able to kick it and cover kicks, make something happen in the return game.”
Holliday was asked whether in the long season, he thought any aspect of his team was overlooked. He said no, and chose to point out what he thought most significant in the program’s advancement.
“It hasn’t been overlooked, but it’s the defense I point to,” the Herd coach said. “We’ve made great progress, big improvement. We took that step a year ago on offense and it took us an extra year on defense.
“We improved greatly. It’s a great credit to (veteran coordinator) Chuck Heater and our defensive staff. Billy (Legg, offensive coordinator) got it done on offense last year, has done a great job with (quarterback Rakeem) Cato and this season made some tweaks that made us even better with the ball.
“Special teams, for the most part, I think we’ve been better because we’re better on defense. We’re much better on covering kicks, much better at tackling in space and that type of thing.
“But we’re going to have to play well in all three phases Friday against Maryland if we’re going to have a chance to beat that football team. The preparation … I think our guys have done a great job there, just as they have all year, gone about their business. That needs to continue right up to 2:30 Friday.”
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The Herd also will be playing on Friday to stay on a very exclusive bowl list.
Marshall is 7-3 in its bowl history, and has won seven of its last eight postseason games. It is one of only three teams to play in at least 10 bowls and own a .700 winning percentage.
The other two – Utah (13-4, .765) and Miami of Ohio (7-3, .700) -- didn’t make the 2013 postseason. Utah was 5-7 this season and the RedHawks, routed by Marshall in the season opener, went 0-12.
Boise State (9-5) had a chance to join the exclusive group, but lost to Oregon State in the Hawaii Bowl on Tuesday night.