Derek Redd: Herd can still accomplish big things
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's obvious this season's Marshall football team is vastly improved from last year's. Even the most disillusioned Thundering Herd fan has to admit that.
The defense no longer is a catastrophe. In fact, it has helped keep the Herd in games rather than take it out of them. The offense isn't putting up the astronomical numbers of 2012, but it's still among the nation's best. And it's a better balance, not just relying on Rakeem Cato's arm to move the ball down the field.
So the team is better. Yet the record after four games is the same as it was last season, just 2-2. And even the most ardent Herd backer has to admit those two wins came against weak competition - a winless, and atrocious, Miami team and Football Championship Subdivision member Gardner-Webb.
Marshall fought valiantly in its two losses, to Ohio and Virginia Tech. The Herd had its chances to win both against tough opponents on the road. But it still dropped two straight. And that's the problem.
The Herd has the talent to hang with the better teams in college football. It just hasn't closed the deal. That's nothing new for Marshall, though. It had a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio last season and couldn't seal a win. And in a win-or-stay-home scenario versus East Carolina, Marshall couldn't keep the Pirates from driving 76 yards in less than two minutes for the game-tying touchdown at the end of regulation in a triple-overtime loss.
In fact, in games decided by eight points or fewer in 2012 and 2013, the Herd is 2-6. That's not a talent issue. And it's not a heart issue. The team plays hard. It just doesn't always play smart.
Forget the fourth down throw that bounced off Darryl Roberts' hands and into Willie Byrn's for the game-tying touchdown Saturday versus Virginia Tech. That throw never happens if Marshall keeps the Hokies from completing an 11-yard pass on fourth and 9 at the Herd 12. And while people might question the decision to call three straight running plays to set up the field goal in the first overtime, the Hokies exploded into the backfield to block the kick.
In the loss to Ohio, the Herd had cut the Bobcats' lead to a touchdown, forced them to punt and had plenty of time to tie the game. On the first play of that drive, Demetrius Evans falls down on a route and Cato's pass sails right into the arms of Ohio corner Devin Bass. It put Ohio on the Marshall 33 and let the Bobcats get a 10-point cushion.
Ohio converted 11 of 19 third downs against Marshall. Virginia Tech converted three of four fourth downs. The nine turnovers the Herd has collected tie it for 15th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The nine turnovers it's given up tie it for 105th. For as much good as the Herd has done, there's something there to hinder its progress.
The good news for Marshall as it enters its Conference USA schedule is that there is no game any worse than a coin flip. Even the toughest games - at Middle Tennessee, at Tulsa and home against East Carolina - are quite winnable.
It might even withstand a stumble or two. Since C-USA split into two divisions, only Houston in 2011 has gone through the conference schedule undefeated.
The bad news is that even coin flips can go awry if mistakes continue, and stumbling against the wrong team like division foes ECU and MTSU could dash a lot of hopes.
So the Herd must cut down on the mental errors - the dropped end-zone passes, the botched kickoff returns that get bobbled into the end zone rather than pounced upon immediately - if it wants to reach the goals that Coach Doc Holliday said are still out there. And plenty of goals remain. Marshall still can finish with just its third winning record in nine seasons. It still can win the conference, still play in a bowl game and record double-digit wins for the first time since 2002.
"Work smarter, not harder" is a cringe-worthy cliche, but it works in this case. Marshall already works plenty hard. There's a lot of talent on the field. That talent can't be undercut by silly errors. No one wants the end to come from self-inflicted wounds.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.