Marshall football: Military Bowl, Terps up next for Herd
HOUSTON - The Marshall University football team has about three weeks to lick its wounds following Saturday's disappointing - and decisive - 41-24 loss to Rice in the Conference USA title game.
Next on the Thundering Herd's schedule is the University of Maryland in the Military Bowl on Friday, Dec. 27 at 2:30 p.m. (ESPN). The Herd must solve a conundrum before it plays the Terrapins in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. It must decipher why it struggles so mightily this season away from Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
"All week, we knew where we wanted to be," quarterback Rakeem Cato said. "This is a championship game, and big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. And we didn't. We didn't make the plays we needed to make, and they made more plays. We have to come back off of this and we have to learn from it."
Marshall is 3-4 away from home in 2013 and, even in victory, the Herd (9-4) has its troubles. Of those three road wins, it needed a last-second field goal to beat Florida Atlantic, 24-23. It needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat a Tulsa team that was five games under .500 at the time, 45-34. And it trailed an awful Florida International team, 3-0, at the end of the first quarter before rebounding to pummel the Panthers, 48-10.
Otherwise, Marshall has left other teams' home fields quite dejected.
The Herd lost to Ohio 34-31, Virginia Tech, 29-21, in triple overtime, Middle Tennessee, 51-49, on the game's final play, and to the Owls.
Now, Marshall faces a Maryland team that will play this game about a half-hour from its College Park, Md., campus. Holliday said Sunday night this is the closest he can remember playing a bowl game to his opponent's home base. But, he added, the team can't allow that to be a factor, just as it wasn't a factor when the Herd beat Florida International in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"You know what? The bottom line is, they're not playing in their home stadium," he said. "All the functions are right there in D.C. and we'll head over to Annapolis and play on a neutral field, so we'll treat it as that. We played well the last bowl game, which everyone was talking about being a home game for FIU, too."
The Terps (7-5, 3-5 ACC) won five of their first six games, including a 37-0 win over West Virginia. The lone loss in that streak came in a 63-0 shellacking at the hands of Florida State. Since then, Maryland has lost four of six. It does hold an overtime victory over 8-4 Virginia Tech, which beat the Herd in triple overtime.
Maryland Coach Randy Edsall said that, from seeing Marshall on game film this year, there's no way he'll rest on having a quasi-home-field advantage.
"You see a well-balanced offense," he said of Marshall. "When you see a team that's rushed for (nearly) 3,000 yards and has passed for 3,700 yards, that's pretty good balance. Then you see a defense that gets turnovers and is very athletic and runs to the ball."
Rice (10-3) used its home field advantage well, jumping out to a 14-0 lead through the air rather than through the Owls usual power running game. The Herd was caught sleeping on a trick play for the first touchdown. Running back Luke Turner found receiver Donte Moore on a 35-yard halfback pass. On Rice's next drive, quarterback Taylor McHargue launched a 75-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Taylor.
"They started off fast and we started off slow," receiver Tommy Shuler said. "When we start off slow, it's not good for us. But we started off slow, and they came out like they wanted it more and they were in their own back yard, and they gave their fans a show."
Meanwhile Marshall's offense, which had averaged 53.8 points in the five games prior to Saturday, couldn't get off the ground. The Herd's first touchdown came with 9:18 left in the first half, when Devon Johnson plowed in for a 1-yard score. That cut Rice's lead to 21-10 and Marshall started the third quarter with a strong drive, but Cato was intercepted by Julius White on the Rice 22. The Owls scored a pair of third-quarter touchdowns to put the game out of reach.
The Herd's performance at Rice Stadium mirrored those of so many other games away from its home turf this year. Marshall's rushing yards per game plummet by more than 95 yards on the road (267.5 to 172.3) while it allows more on the ground (124.8 at home versus 176.3 on the road). Scoring sinks away from Edwards Stadium (52.8-point average at home versus 36.3 points away), while the defense allows almost four touchdowns more per game (13.2-point average at home versus 30.2 points away).
On top of Rice's scoring surge and Marshall's struggles to dent the scoreboard, Marshall gained just 106 rushing yards and allowed 248.
"Whenever you get to this point, the bottom line is you have to win this football game," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "We need to win that championship and we did not do that. It's like anything else. You put it behind you, look forward and go get ready for the next game."
That next game, though, comes hours away from home. And, as history shows, that's not something the Herd handles very well. Yet Marshall will play two more games this year than it did last year, and that only came via the team's vast overall improvement. The first of those two extra games ended in disappointment. Cato said the team can't let it fester, rather it should solve its road woes.
"You take a loss and it's going to hurt," Cato said. "It hurts right now, but you have to come back the next day, watch film and just keep going."
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.