Marshall Thundering Herd (2000: 8-5)
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Coach and programTalking to Marshall head coach Bob Pruett, you would have almost no idea how tough a sesaon the Herd had in 2000. Sure, it ended predictably enough, with a MAC regular-season championship won in front of the home folks in Huntington and a trip to Detroit’s Motor City Bowl to dispatch a mediocre team from a “name” conference.
"For us it was great to take a team of young guys and watch them improve so much from September to the end,” Pruett said.
But between the season-opening win over Division I-AA patsy Southeast Missouri State and the win over Cincinnati at the Silverdome, Marshall looked decidedly human.
The Herd suffered its first home loss since its return to the MAC in ’97, a 30-10 whipping by Western Michigan on national TV in week five. The scheduling genie then sent Marshall to another MAC city with a grudge, and the Herd came back from Toledo on the losing end of a 42-0 thrashing by the Rockets.
Marshall had fallen to 2-4 by this point and was watching the rest of the league’s media get busy writing it off and crowning someone else champion. It didn’t happen. And with the exception of a regressive performance at Ohio in the regular-season finale, the Herd won the rest of its East games and saw the Bobcats, Miami and Akron eliminate each other from the title hunt. Which brought us again to this predictable end.
Marshall was exposed as a team lacking depth, lacking a feature back for much of the year, unable to protect the passer and completely lost against the run. That final point remains an issue, and was borne out at Ohio, where the Herd gave up a ludicrous 401 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground. That defeat hit home for Pruett, who sat on the Peden Stadium field long after the game asking the producer of his televised show to “hurry up, or else they’ll turn that scoreboard back on and start kicking our butts again.”
Pruett pledges that version of Marshall football will not return.
In fact, it will be a real surprise to him and Marshall fans if the Herd does not return to its dominance of past seasons.
OffenseThings could not have been any more difficult for an inexperienced quarterback last fall. And despite the battering and bruising, junior Byron Leftwich (6-6, 240) proved durable enough to withstand 30 sacks and constant pressure. The Washington, D.C. native led the MAC in passing yards (3,441), accuracy (61.1 percent), total offense (286 yards per game) and touchdowns (21), while throwing just nine interceptions.
He put up those numbers for an offense that had the league’s second-lowest average time of possession. He is the MAC’s best quarterback, a pro prospect and may be the best in the NCAA, in Pruett’s humble opinion. “He’s got a chance to be the best in the country,” Pruett said. “He’s got a major-league arm and makes great decisions.”
While Leftwich exceeded nearly every expectation, the Marshall running backs had their problems.
Junior Franklin Wallace (5-11, 192) was the only bright spot, rushing for 555 yards on 100 carries and getting to the end zone seven times. Wallace was a Prop 48 non-qualifier two years ago, but could get four years on the field if he graduates by the end of summer 2003.
Sophomore Darius Watts (6-2, 177) is a difference-maker with awesome speed at split end, as the Georgia native led the team in receiving yards (616) and yards per catch (17.1) on just 36 catches.
An absolute mess last fall thanks to injuries, offensive line is a position that can do nothing but improve for Marshall this season. At left tackle, junior Steve Sciullo (6-5, 325) is an All-MAC lineman and was Marshall’s only truly dominant pass blocker last fall.
Defense and special teamsMarshall plays the 4-4, “40-front’’ defense that seems to be in vogue right now, though the Thundering Herd has been doing it for a while under defensive coordinator Kevin Kelly.
Sophomore Marlan Hicks (6-3, 295) plays over the nose and has an All-MAC future if he continues to improve.
All four of the starters at the linebacker spots are seniors, headed up by All-MAC inside linebacker Max Yates (6-3, 228). Yates turned in 115 tackles last fall, to go with a pair of sacks and interceptions.
Juniors Terence Tarpley (5-10, 174) and Yancey Satterwhite (5-11, 175) make the backfield more athletic right now. That duo got three starts last fall and combined for 46 tackles. Tarpley is probably a little ahead of Satterwhite, but both are excellent and would start for any MAC squad.
Punter Curtis Head (5-11, 164) spent the spring kicking field goals, with walk-on freshman Ben Lewis (5-11, 188) and walk-on senior T.C. Beaver (5-11, 167) on the roster as well.
Bottom lineLast year, Marshall experienced something it hadn’t before in the MAC -- bumps in the road. And not just little bumps. Marshall was beaten by three of the teams that had been chasing the Herd the last few years. Is the MAC catching up? Is Marshall’s recruiting sinking to the level of the rest of league? Or was it just some injuries at the wrong times?
There is still no reason to believe this group will stop the run, and no matter how athletic, the new defensive backs can’t be that much better than last year’s. And the offense lacks experience at all three receiver spots. Will potential league MVPs Yates and Leftwich be enough to lead the Herd back to the MAC Championship game, no matter where it’s played?
Sad as it may be for the rest of the league, we have to say yes. If Marshall makes it through Florida without too much collateral damage, the Herd can do it again. The schedule falls just right again, as in ’99. And going 10-1 should guarantee ranking and a bowl bid for the Herd again.