Marshall football: Herd, Golden Eagles both in need of victory
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Marshall visits an opponent this Saturday that has no other option but perfection.
Southern Mississippi (0-6, 0-2 Conference USA) has finished with a winning record in 18 consecutive seasons and has reached a bowl game in 14 of the last 15 seasons.
The only way the Golden Eagles extend either of those streaks is to win their next six games for the second half of 2012. That's no easy task.
Yet the Thundering Herd won't look down its nose at Southern Miss when the two clash at 7 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network).
"We're 2-4," redshirt freshman outside linebacker D.J. Hunter said. "We're not too far off from them."
The Herd doesn't need to go undefeated following its bye week to reach back-to-back bowls for the first time since 2001 and 2002. The margin for error, though, is slim. Six wins is the magic number for bowl eligibility and both the Herd and Golden Eagles are starving for a win to kickstart some momentum.
At least Marshall has some experience in this predicament. The Herd (2-4, 1-1) was sitting in the exact same spot last year that it is this year.
Marshall rebounded to reach and win the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl over Florida International.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday would love to see a repeat performance.
"That football team (last season) had a small group of seniors, but those seniors played their best football the last six or seven weeks of the season and ended up winning five of the last seven and finished on a positive note," he said. "That's exactly the same place we are right now."
The Herd feels its bye week came at a perfect time.
The team got a break from a six-week grind of games and an opportunity to focus on itself for a few days.
That allowed banged-up players to heal and the rest to work on things like ball security on offense and communication on defense.
After two weeks against each other, Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato said the players are itching to turn their attention toward someone else.
"Everybody's eager to get back on the field," he said. "Everyone's excited. Everyone's having fun. Everyone's turned it up. They're getting their swagger back and getting comfortable just playing their ball game."
Last season's Southern Miss game, a 26-20 Herd win, was a coming-out party of sorts for Cato, who threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns.
It will be the sophomore's first visit to raucous Roberts Stadium, where Marshall lost 41-16 in its last visit in 2010.
But any memories of the game's atmosphere aren't in Holliday's mind.
"I didn't have a whole lot of fond memories down there, because if I remember right, we got the (stuff) beat out of us," Holliday said. "That was not a good day for us."
The Golden Eagles might be winless, but they're just a year removed from a 12-2, C-USA title-winning season. Southern Miss lost four-year starting quarterback Austin Davis - true freshman Anthony Alford will start Saturday - but the Eagles return six offensive starters and four defensive starters from last year's team. USM clawed closer to its first win last week, taking Central Florida to two overtimes before finally falling 38-31.
Holliday said that's a testament to new Coach Ellis Johnson and his staff.
"He hasn't lost his players," Holliday said. "He has held them together. They're playing extremely hard. That's a tribute to him and that's a tribute to that team."
The Herd doesn't want to be the first victim for the Golden Eagles. It can barely afford to be. Marshall hasn't faced an East Division foe yet - Southern Miss will be the first - and a perfect second half could put the Herd in the conference title game.
"We all want to get to that goal," Hunter said. "If we win out, we can still go to the conference championship. We have to come out and win these last six games. We want it. We're hungry."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.