HERD ZONE MCGILL: Turnover margin key as Herd seeks bowl eligibility

Updated 4 days ago Special to HNN Provided by Herd Zone

By Chuck McGill

HerdZone.com

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – As Marshall prepares to host Charlotte this Saturday in a Conference USA East Division matchup that can shuffle the standings and shape the league's bowl picture, Doc Holliday did not have to delve deep into the numbers.

This one, the ninth-year Thundering Herd football coach said, is simple.

"We have got to eliminate the penalties and we have to take care of the ball," he said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "That's where that (Southern Miss) game was lost."

Marshall (5-3, 3-2 C-USA) had its pursuit of bowl eligibility thwarted and its path toward an East Division title complicated by a 26-24 loss at Southern Miss last Saturday, and the Herd turned the ball over four times. The MU defense had two takeaways – previously a harbinger of good news for the team – but lost anyway because of the minus-two turnover margin. The Herd had won nine consecutive games when coming up with two or more takeaways, but the offense's miscues sullied that stat.

Now, the numbers in black and white are simple. Marshall is 0-3 this season when having a minus-two margin in turnovers, and 5-0 when the turnover is anything better. 

Marshall forced one turnover against North Carolina State on Sept. 22, but three turnovers plagued the Herd. In another home loss, this time Oct. 5 against Middle Tennessee, it was again one turnover caused versus three turnovers given. At USM, the offense had four turnovers – two lost fumbles and two interceptions. In a 2-point final margin, Holliday and the Herd see the simple solution.

This is as good of a time as any for Marshall to amend those errors in a 2:30 p.m. game that will be broadcast on ESPN+. The Herd has yet to be mathematically eliminated from C-USA East contention, and a win gives the program the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility. Saturday is also the annual memorial game, which Marshall plays on a date close to the anniversary of the football program's plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970. The team will wear black tops and black pants, and have a special helmet with '75' on one side – the number of people killed in the tragedy – and the logo of the 1971 Young Thundering Herd on the other side. The names of all 75 people who perished in the disaster will be on a green stripe down the middle of the helmet.

All former Marshall football players were invited back to participate in the pregame ceremony.

"It's so important we go out and play our best football all year on that particular date," Holliday said. "I'm excited as a football coach to have all our ex-players come back and join us on the field prior to the game. That's the first time we've done that. That will be a special, special deal."

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When the Marshall offense receives its opportunities, it must capitalize. Charlotte, which is 4-5 overall and tied with the Herd at 3-2 in the standings, ranks No. 3 nationally in time of possession. The 49ers average a time of possession of 35:41, which is nearly 60 percent of regulation.

"They do a really good job of controlling the game," Marshall defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said of the Charlotte offense. "They've got three senior offensive linemen; their right tackle is probably one of the best offensive linemen in the country. He does a great job. As a unit they do a really good job.

"The (running) back we've played against before, but he's substantially better than he was last year. Great balance, it's hard to find a guy who brings him down 1-on-1, he moves forward, falls forward. They do a great job of controlling the clock, grinding the ball out."

The back Fuller references is Benny LeMay, a junior who has carried 165 times for 826 yards this season. He has six touchdowns and is averaging 5.01 yards per carry.

Even though Charlotte has held the ball longer than all but two teams in the country, the 49ers rank No. 121 in total offense and No. 123 in scoring offense.

"They're playing team football," Fuller said. "They're controlling the clock. They're getting first downs. All of their games have been close. It's by design. You can watch the way they punt the ball, the way they run the ball, the way they play defense."

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The defense will also be a challenge, offensive coordinatorTim Cramsey said.

Charlotte ranks No. 3 nationally in rush defense, the only team ahead of Marshall within Conference USA.

"Their defense has transformed from earlier in the year to what they're doing the last couple of games," Cramsey said. "It's a three-down front and they have their defensive end in the middle. It's a unique three-down operation.

"We've got our work cut out for us."

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Marshall has not allowed a first quarter touchdown in 11 consecutive games, which is now the longest streak among FBS programs. LSU had topped the list at 12 games, but allowed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Alabama with 4:58 left of the first quarter last Saturday. The Herd held Southern Miss to a first quarter field goal, so it extended the streak.

The teams behind Marshall on the list: Clemson (nine), Auburn (six), Georgia (five), Florida Atlantic (five) and Fresno State (five).

Chuck McGill is the Assistant Athletic Director for Fan/Donor Engagement and Communications at Marshall University and a six-time winner of the National Sports Media Association West Virginia Sportswriter of the Year award. In addition to HerdZone.com's Word on the Herd, McGill is the editor of Thundering Herd Illustrated, Marshall's official athletics publication. Follow him on Twitter (@chuckmcgill) and Instagram (wordontheherd).

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