Marshall football: On-field mistakes cost Herd on special teams
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Whether it was the 79-yard punt return allowed for a touchdown or the 42-yard kickoff return ... or the roughing-the-punter penalty ... or the blocked punt, Marshall's special teams had little to celebrate in a 38-31 loss to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Yet those struggles weren't isolated to that game.
They've flummoxed the Thundering Herd for several contests.
They're problems the Herd (4-6, 3-3 Conference USA) needs to solve before Saturday, when Houston (4-6, 3-3 C-USA) visits at noon for Marshall's home finale (CSS).
Scheme, the players say, isn't the issue. It's the on-field mistakes that allow for big plays.
"What we're doing works," said redshirt sophomore Jazz King, a member of Marshall's punt, kickoff return and punt block teams. "It's just that everybody has to do their job. It's just that one mistake that lets a team take it for a touchdown."
Special teams haven't been an issue during Doc Holliday's Marshall tenure until now.
The Herd is 113th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in kickoff return yardage allowed (25.05 yards a return), and is giving up 3.2 yards more per return than last season.
The Herd is a bit better in punt return yardage allowed, ranking 86th at 9.81 yards per return. That's 1.76 yards per return higher than last year.
But the four touchdowns Marshall has allowed on special teams in 10 games quadruples the total the Herd allowed in 2011 and matches the total it allowed from 2007-11. And opponents are getting plenty of chances to make special teams plays. Marshall is last in Conference USA with five touchbacks.
While opponents are making gains on Marshall on special teams, the Herd hasn't been as potent this year as it was last season. Marshall averages about two fewer yards per kickoff return, dropping from 22.32 yards per return last year to 20.30 yards this year. On punt returns, Marshall averages more than three fewer yards, falling from 11.71 yards per return to 8.14 yards.
The scores allowed have been the most damaging. The UAB punt-return touchdown came right after the Herd had taken a 7-0 first quarter lead. Jackie Williams' scamper and stretch into the end zone killed the momentum Marshall gained on that first score.
Punter Tyler Williams said a longer hang time could have helped prevent that touchdown. He tries to put at least four seconds of hang time into his punts, but estimated that punt stayed in the air for about 3.5 seconds.
"I think the biggest thing was it was low, and everybody was running down there hard, and I think what happened was everybody pursued thinking the ball was going to go farther," Williams said. "So everyone pursued and everyone was running in their lanes, but when he caught the ball, no one expected him to catch it so early."
Personnel changes on special teams, both voluntary and forced through injury, might also have something to do with the breakdowns. King said that sometimes coaches will juggle the lineup when some special teamers are struggling. But when players get banged up, the coaches don't have a choice.
The Herd's usual kick and punt returner, senior Andre Snipes-Booker, was lost for the second time this season with what looked like a head injury. He sat out the loss to Central Florida with a concussion. Coach Doc Holliday said last week that cornerbacks Derrick Thomas, Keith Baxter Jr. and Monterius Lovett normally play special teams, but none of them have been because they've been hurt, hadn't practiced and were needed on defense.
The replacements don't always come in with a ton of special teams experience, said defensive end Jeremiah Taylor, a starter who also plays on the punt team.
"When you have injuries like that, it hurts because those guys don't get the game reps the first-teamers get," he said. "Having those guys out like (Baxter, Thomas and Lovett), it hurt us a little bit. But it still comes down to competitive excellence. When you're number's called, you have to make a play."
Taylor added that, when new players do join the special teams, it's not always a quick fit. It's one thing to go over it in practice. It's another to be on kick return and have an opponent sprinting your way.
"Usually it takes a couple of games," he said. "It's a little rough on them. They do it in practice, but it's different to do it in a game. Game speed and practice speed are two different things. You have to think a lot quicker. Getting experience in a game-time situation is what they need."
There have been bright spots among the struggles. Williams was named a Ray Guy Award semifinalist last week, and is eighth in the FBS averaging 45.51 yards per punt. The Herd blocked a field goal against UAB and Derek Mitchell returned a blocked punt against Purdue for a touchdown.
But with Marshall's margin for error gone for its last two games - contests the Herd must win for bowl eligibility - the players are doubling down to correct their special teams mistakes.
"We're going to watch a lot of film to see what we did wrong," Williams said. "Houston's going to watch film and see what we did wrong. We have to correct what happened and go out and fix it. We have to be prepared for what they're going to bring against us and make sure those things don't happen again."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.