They were embarrassed. Humiliated. "Absolutely disgusted," says Marshall free safety Chris Crocker. "For those of us who have some pride, last year was difficult to swallow." Yes, the Thundering Herd went 11-2 and earned its fourth consecutive bowl win, but to the defensive players the season was a disaster. They ranked last in the MAC and 106th in the nation against the run (217.8 yards per game) and gave up an average of 25.7 points. Having analyzed every play on which the Herd gave up seven or more yards rushing in 2001, defensive coordinator Bill Wilt says, "This year we're going to simplify things."
Thanks largely to an offense that averaged 373 points and a MAC-record 505.0 yards in '01 and has 10 starters returning, Marshall enters the season heavily favored to win its fifth MAC championship in six years. Heisman candidate Byron Leftwich (4,132 passing yards and 38 touchdowns) will again play ringmaster to a dazzling aerial circus, throwing to a trio of talented receivers in senior Darius Watts (1,417 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns), senior Denero Marriott (800 yards, nine touchdowns) and sophomore Josh Davis (79 catches, an NCAA freshman record). Running back Franklin Wallace is also healthy after rushing for 796 yards and nine TDs despite nagging injuries.
If Marshall can beat Virginia Tech on Sept. 12 in Blacksburg, it has a good shot at going undefeated for the second time in four years—and at gaining a BCS bid. But for the Herd to do that it will need to be effective on both sides of the ball. "We can't wait to flush last season down the tubes," says Wilt. "Everyone knows how great the offense is. Imagine how great this team will be if we get the job done on defense."