Team to Watch - Marshall
August 13, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
Call it Tulane 1998 redux.
We're talking about the prospects for the Marshall Thundering Herd (2013 - 10-4 SU, 9-5 ATS) becoming the first Conference USA team to run the table since the 1998 version of the Green Wave.
You remember that Tulane team, right?
Tommy Bowden was in his second year as head coach. Almost all of the key players from the Green Wave's 7-4 1997 team returned, the schedule didn't appear to be demanding, and no team had a clue how to stop offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez's newfangled offense, known today as the spread. In quarterback Shaun King, Bowden and Rodriguez had the perfect triggerman for their electrified attack. By midseason, it was readily apparent that Bowden was going to be targeted by a higher-profile school; Clemson was already laying the groundwork to lure Bowden to Death Valley. But the Wave avoided any potential distractions and kept winning and winning, with no foe ever closer than six points.
By the time the season concluded, the only other undefeated team left standing was BCS champ Tennessee. But there was no real clamor for the Wave to appear in the title game, or even into the BCS (then it its first season of existence) for one of its other bowls, because the '98 schedule was so undemanding.
By the time it came to face BYU in the Liberty Bowl, Bowden was already gone to Clemson, and the Wave had planted the seeds for a return to mediocrity when bypassing Rodriguez as the successor, instead opting for Chris Scelfo. With King at the controls, Tulane had no trouble with BYU in the bowl, winning 41-27, but the comet-like Wave quickly disappeared from view in 1999, dropping to 3-8.
(Note: the Herd is not unfamiliar with unbeaten seasons either, having recorded a 13-0 mark in 1999 shortly after its transition from the old D-IAA ranks to the MAC. But for C-USA purposes, the comparisons to the unbeaten Tommy Bowden Green Wave edition seem more appropriate).
The parallels between Tulane 1998 and Marshall 2014 are apparent, and similar enough that valid comparisons are already being drawn. That Bowden Green Wave team represented C-USA's best chance to get involved in the 16-season run of the BCS, but unlike 1998, now there is a designated path for the league champ to qualify for a spot in the "New Year's Six" that is the de facto successor to the BCS. An invitation to the College Football Playoff remains very remote, but a spot is being reserved from among the highest-ranked C-USA, Mountain West, American, MAC, and Sun Belt rep for an invitation to the one of the "NY6" bowls. And, at this stage, the Herd would be the consensus pick among that group to receive the invite.
Of course, they have to play the season first, but all systems look go in Huntington for head coach Doc Holliday, a recruiter extraordinaire now entering his fifth season as coach. The breakthrough occurred last season when Marshall won 10 games for the first time since 2002, topping off the fun with a comfy 31-20 win over Maryland in the Military Bowl. While Holliday lost some important pieces from last year's puzzle, enough key elements remain to suggest running the table is not a far-fetched notion this fall.
The Herd put a hurtin' on plenty of foes last season, cracking the 50-point barrier on five different occasions, and senior triggerman Rakeem Cato is back for one more go in 2014. Cato completed 60% of his passes a year ago, good for a whopping 3916 yards and 39 TDs, with just nine picks. Over the past two seasons, Cato has tossed 76 TD passes and now has over 10,000 passing yards in his career. Cato is also an experienced detonator of offensive coordinator Bill Legg's hurry-up offense that has produced better than 500 yards per game the past two years (last season good for 12th in the country).
C-USA sources say that Cato, who has spent most of the past three years throwing short-to-intermediate passes, worked on his deep ball in the spring, and the chance to stretch enemy defenses even further is a frightening thought for Marshall foes. Slot receiver Tommy Shuler has been able to benefit from the short stuff and has caught at least 100 passes in each of the past two seasons. The Herd will have to replace big-play TE Gator Hoskins (Miami Dolphins camp), who caught 15 TD passes a year ago, though sr. Eric Frohnapfel suggested in spring that he could fit the bill. The possible breakthrough threat will be jr. WR Davonte Allen, a speedburner who has gained almost 18 yards per catch in limited work the past two seasons but hinted at much bigger things (and the deep threat Cato needs) in spring. Regional sources insist that if Allen becomes the legit deep threat that Marshall lacked last season, the Herd could even better last year's 42.1 ppg (ranking 7th nationally).
There are no worries regarding an offensive line that returns three starters, and replacing graduated top rusher Essray Taliaferro should be handled easily by committee, as coast-to-coast junior Steward Butler gained 8.8 ypc in 2013, and Kevin Grooms has gained over 1,200 YR the past two seasons. All each have lacked is the chance to carry the ball more often, which should not be a problem this fall for an infantry that gained almost 206 ypg a year ago.
We also mention the name of Chuck Heater, a onetime featured RB for Bo Schembechler's early '70s powerhouses at Michigan and eventually a coach of some repute. Bo would be proud his former student, who burnished his legacy when arriving in Huntington last season to fix what was one of the leakiest defenses in the country in 2012. Heater's upgrades were noteworthy, if not breathtaking, as the Herd ranked in the top quartile nationally of some important defensive stats while allowing a very respectable 22.9 ppg (32nd nationally), a number better than it looks considering the fast pace of Marshall's games, and almost cutting in half the whopping point allowance (43.1 ppg!) from 2012. Statistically, no "D" improved as much in the nation from the previous season.
Heater's 4-2-5 requires active linebackers, and the top three tacklers from last season all played at the position and return this fall, with Jermaine Holmes and Evan McKelvey likely to be on the field the most. A key adjustment to watch is jr. D.J. Hunter, who struggled at times as a strong safety last season and is moving to a strongside LB slot (where he was a Frosh A-A two years ago). Last year's nickel back, Conference USA co-Frosh of the Year Corey Tindale, is slated to start at a CB spot this fall. Impactful DT tackle James Rouse has also been granted a sixth year of eligibility and returns after earning All-C-USA honors last fall.
Further fueling the optimism is what looks like a forgiving schedule, with an opening game at Miami-Ohio against a RedHawks team that was 0-12 last season and lost 52-14 to the Herd. The only significant non-league challenge will likely be vs. Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcats, who scored a mild 34-31 upset in Athens last season; they make the relatively short trip to Huntington on September 13. Rice, Marshall's conqueror in the C-USA title game last December, also must visit Edwards Stadium on November 15.
As long as Cato doesn't get hurt, the Herd figures to be a substantial favorite in every game it plays until the bowls. And unlike Tulane 16 years ago, there is a path for Marshall to get a major bowl invitation.
Let the comparisons to the 1998 Green Wave begin.
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