Marshall football: Herd hopes to avoid letdown against struggling Southern Miss
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - As tough as it is to be a college football team on a 19-game losing streak, there's one team in America that would feel worse.
The opponent with which a 19-game losing streak ends.
As the Marshall University football team hosts Southern Mississippi at noon Saturday when on CBS Sports Network, it has more than one mission. Not only does the Herd (4-3, 2-1 Conference USA) want to rebound from a disappointing loss that dredged up bad memories of 2012, but it wants to avoid being the victim in the Golden Eagles' (0-7, 0-3 C-USA) quest to win their first game since Christmas Eve 2011.
"They're trying to find the answers to be more successful," Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said. "They're moving personnel around to get that done. You hope they just don't get it done on your day. Whatever discovery they make, it isn't on your time."
From what the Herd players say they've seen on film, Southern Miss' losing streak isn't for lack of talent. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato started watching film shortly after the Herd's last-second, 51-49 loss to Middle Tennessee last Thursday. By Monday, he was able to go through the lineup, jersey number by jersey number, and point out notable players.
"We know they have good players," Cato said. "They still have great players from my freshman year, when they won the (Conference USA) championship. They still have great players on that team who can produce at a high level. We can't look at anyone, just looking at their record."
Yet it's a vastly different atmosphere in Hattiesburg from that 2011 season, when the Golden Eagles stunned undefeated Houston in the C-USA title game and won the Hawaii Bowl over Nevada. Coach Larry Fedora left for North Carolina, and Southern Miss hired South Carolina assistant Ellis Johnson. Johnson used five quarterbacks, including freshman and four-star recruit Anthony Alford. Johnson also hired Alford's high school coach, Steve Buckley, and named him offensive coordinator.
The offense was one of the worst in college football and the Golden Eagles went 0-12. Johnson was fired, Alford transferred to Ole Miss and Buckley moved into a player personnel position.
Enter Todd Monken, the former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator tasked with turning around a program that fell very far very quickly. It hasn't been easy. In this as-of-now-winless campaign, Monken has turned to true freshman Nick Mullens as his starting quarterback. Mullens' first start was in a 55-14 loss to North Texas, where he completed just 12-of-31 passes for 210 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. He also lost two fumbles while being sacked.
The Herd enters the game licking its wounds as well. It could have moved to 3-0 in C-USA for the first time since joining the conference, but fell in the final seconds to Middle Tennessee, 51-49, allowing a game-winning touchdown pass as time ran out.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said the players obviously were sore about losing, but that he never worried that they wouldn't be.
"Honestly, I'd be really disappointed if they weren't really hurt by that loss," he said. "We would have a lot more problems if they weren't hurt. We're not where we want to be and it is unacceptable to lose a game like that, but effort has never been a problem this year.
"These kids play extremely hard and it's important to them. Execution has been a problem at times for us, but not effort or the caring part of it."
And there's still plenty to care about. The conference loss was costly, but the Herd remains in a dead heat with East Carolina for the East Division lead, and the two teams will face each other in Huntington in their respective regular season finales. The key now is to stay at least neck-and-neck with the Pirates until that showdown, and honing in on Southern Miss will keep the Herd on track.
"If we do anything but focus on Southern Miss, then the rest of it isn't going to matter," he said. "We have to find a way to win this game against Southern Miss and then we'll look at who we have down the road. If we look further than that and are not focused on Southern Miss, then we'll be sitting here next week having a conversation about no longer controlling our own destiny."
As well as a conversation about being the Golden Eagles' streak-breaker.