Marshall football: Hard road ahead for Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It was just two Saturdays ago that Marshall Coach Doc Holliday was underneath the stands of M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Miss., beaming about his Thundering Herd's dominating win over Southern Mississippi.
The offense hummed as usual. The defense put together its best game of the year. The special teams were great. Holliday called it a total team win.
Fast forward to this past Saturday in the Marshall football interview room. Exasperation replaced joy. Voices were soaked in frustration, not glee. Central Florida had come to Joan C. Edwards Stadium and controlled every facet of the game, beating the Herd 54-17 and handing Marshall (3-5, 2-2 Conference USA) its third straight loss at home.
Holliday's assessment after the UCF game - a total team loss.
"We didn't play, offensively, very well, defensively or on special teams," Holliday said. "They came in here and beat us."
The Knights (6-2, 4-0) conquered the Herd in ways that were unprecedented this season. UCF held Marshall's offense - the class of Conference USA and one of the most prolific in the Football Bowl Subdivision - to 364 total yards and 17 points. Marshall had been averaging 568.4 yards and 43.1 points entering the game and hadn't scored fewer than 24 points or gained fewer than 491 yards all season.
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, the nation's leader in total passing yards with 2,949, was held to 298 against the Knights on 35-of-62 passing, his first sub-300-yard game of the year. He was sacked four times and forced to shoulder the offensive burden, as the Herd's running game sputtered to just 66 yards on 36 carries. Only against Ohio, where Marshall rushed 22 times for 59 yards, was the ground attack worse.
The Herd scored its first touchdown with 26 seconds left in the half, when Antavious Wilson reeled in a 15-yard deflected Cato pass. But that only cut UCF's lead to 27-10. Cato's receivers didn't help at times in the first half, dropping seven passes.
"The plays were there," said Cato, who threw two touchdowns. "We didn't make them as a whole. We're human. We just have to get better at those things and just keep working."
Marshall's defense, which seemed to have a breakthrough against Southern Miss, reverted back to old form against the Knights.
It didn't start out so bad. Junior corner Derrick Thomas intercepted UCF quarterback Blake Bortles' first pass of the game, and redshirt junior linebacker Billy Mitchell picked off another in the second quarter.
The Herd picked up a second-half fumble to win the turnover battle 3-0, but it was one of the few battles it won.
After Justin Haig's 43-yard field goal to give Marshall a 3-0 lead, the Knights rattled off four straight touchdowns and added another four in the second half.
Marshall allowed 568 yards to UCF, the third game this year it allowed at least that much to an opponent. And while Marshall's offense used quantity, UCF's used quality.
The Herd's offense sprinted in place, needing 98 plays to gain 364 yards. UCF gained its 568 on just 62 plays, a 9.2-yard-per-play average.
"It was a big surprise," Mitchell said. "Coming in, I thought we had a great game plan. We were making plays left and right. Missed tackles is what hurt us today.
"A lot of times, we have a free-shot player and we have every gap accounted for. But sometimes that free-shot player doesn't take the shot or miss a tackle, it turns into a big play for them."
UCF running back Latavius Murray was the catalyst on many of the Knights' big gains. He rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 carries.
Two of those scores came on runs of 75 and 42 yards.
The Herd has been bad against the run all year. It allowed an average of more than 227 yards entering the UCF game. The Knights ran for 278 yards.
Bortles recovered from his rough start to complete 15 of 21 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns - a 16-yarder to Jeff Godfrey and a 20-yarder to Murray.
Perhaps the biggest breakdowns came on special teams. The Herd allowed two momentum-destroying kickoff returns for touchdowns, both by Quincy McDuffie. The first came right after Haig's first-quarter field goal, a 97-yard return that put the Herd on its heels in 13 seconds.
The second, a 98-yarder, came on the opening kickoff of the second half, gave UCF a 34-10 lead 15 seconds into the third quarter and essentially iced the game.
No player in UCF or Conference USA history had ever returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game.
It was a concoction of botched plays, bad performances and missed opportunities that was tough for the Herd to swallow and ate at Mitchell's stomach.
"It hurts," Mitchell said. "This was a big game for us, a huge game. UCF is at the top of our conference. Not winning, they're more in control right now. We're in the back seat, waiting for something to happen."
Marshall can't wait long, for the sake of its postseason hopes. The Herd remains three wins away from the magical six-win plateau that guarantees bowl eligibility.
Now it has just four games to get there.
Cato said it's now even more important to buckle down and fix the errors that plagued the Herd against UCF and for most of the season.
"I don't know what it is," Cato said. "Sometimes, me and (receiver Tommy) Shuler just talk and we ask ourselves, does somebody have a curse on us? I don't know what it is. We're just not getting the job done."
But if the Herd wants to turn its season around, that can't remain a mystery much longer.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.