MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Marshall football Coach Doc Holliday wanted to praise some special teams work that, in most games, would have put the Thundering Herd on the path to victory. He couldn't mention it, though, without also discussing some special teams gaffes that helped send the Herd to a 51-49 loss to Middle Tennessee last Thursday.
What had been a strength of Marshall's game, the Herd punt team suffered a pair of errors that led to 10 Blue Raiders points. It will have the unit headed back to the drawing board to fix itself before Saturday's matchup versus Southern Mississippi at Joan C. Edwards Stadium (12:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network).
The first blunder came with less than six minutes left in the first quarter. On Tyler Williams' second punt of the game, Middle Tennessee's Chris Brown bolted toward him and Alex Bazzie was too late to slow him down. Brown blocked the punt and scooped it up for a three-yard touchdown that gave Middle Tennessee a 14-7 lead. It was the second blocked punt returned for a touchdown against Marshall (4-3, 2-1 Conference USA) this season, the first coming in the first quarter against Virginia Tech.
Then, with less than eight minutes to go in the third quarter, Williams went low to catch a punt snap and his knee grazed the Floyd Stadium turf. It went in the books as a 14-yard loss and gave the Blue Raiders the ball on the Marshall 47. MTSU then wiped about four minutes off the clock on a 13-play, 27-yard field goal drive that gave the Blue Raiders a 38-28 lead.
Add those to the punt team's other struggles - the Herd is 104th in the Football Bowl Subdivision allowing nearly 12 yards per punt return - and they negated some pretty good returns.
"The rest, I thought, was solid," Holliday said. "The kickoff return was good. The punt return was good. That punt team, that should have never happened. The guys have to do their jobs and we have to do a better job of coaching them, evidently."
Deandre Reaves provided a spark on kick return with an 81-yard return late in the third quarter. That gave Marshall the ball on the Middle Tennessee 17 and led to a short touchdown drive that cute MTSU's lead to 38-35. In the fourth quarter, Devon Smith returned a punt 37 yards and put the ball on the Blue Raiders 44. The Herd scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive to take a 49-45 lead.
"With the ability of (Smith) and myself, anything can happen when the ball's in his hands or the ball's in my hands," Reaves said. "We put it on our backs. It's on our backs and it's up to us. We're going to do whatever we have to do to get us in the best field position."
THE HERD'S defensive performance versus Middle Tennessee kicked up some painful memories of last season's titanic struggles.
Marshall allowed at least 51 points in five games last season. The 585 yards allowed to the Blue Raiders was more than the Herd gave up in all but two games in 2012. Both West Virginia and Rice pushed past the 600-yard barrier. The 308 yards Marshall allowed on the ground were 190 more than its average going into Thursday's game and nearly 105 more than it averaged in 2012.
And when Jordan Parker ran for 127 yards and Reggie Whatley ran for 104 on Thursday, it was the first time Marshall had allowed a pair of 100-yard rushers in the same game since Nov. 12, 2011. Tulsa's Ja'Terian Douglas ran for 194 yards and Trey Watts ran for 144 on that day.