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How the hell did Marshall football fall apart so quickly, and when will it bounce back?

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After winning 33 games in three years, the Herd only won three last year. What’s next?

NCAA Football: Marshall at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published March 2 and has since been updated.

YouTube is such a blessing for college football fans. It is a free (and, from a copyright standpoint, pretty blurry) repository of history. You can find virtually any game from the last few years, but the archiving goes way back. Feel like watching Bud Wilkinson doing color commentary while Archie Manning runs around Tulane Stadium in the 1970 Sugar Bowl? You can! You can even watch the commercials! (Spoiler: there are lots of cigarette commercials.)

Here’s another: the 1997 West Virginia-Marshall game. As both a time capsule and a magnifying glass into state culture, it is marvelous.

  • Marshall’s Randy Moss, fresh off of a 78-catch, 28-touchdown campaign, catches seven balls for 85 yards and two touchdowns. It’s basically his least prolific performance of a season that will include 96 catches, 1,820 yards, 26 scores, and a Biletnikoff Award.
  • WVU responds with a dominant game from running back Amos Zereoue, who scores two touchdowns early and one late on the way to 174 rushing yards.
  • Young starting quarterback (and future St. Louis Ram) Marc Bulger completes 11 of 22 for 114 for WVU, while Marshall starter Chad Pennington is more prolific (266 yards, three touchdowns) and mistake-prone (four interceptions).
  • WVU surges to a (sorry, Falcons fans) 28-3 lead thanks to two Famous Amos touchdowns and a blocked punt, but Marshall responds with thunder. The Herd score four touchdowns in about 18 minutes to take a 31-28 lead. But as Herd plays begin to cramp up and limp off the field, the Mountaineers strike back. A Bulger touchdown pass and Zereoue’s final score give WVU a 42-31 win.

As noteworthy as the game, though, is the undercurrent. Marshall had been waiting 75 years to get a shot at WVU. The Herd had dealt with impossible tragedy and pushed forward to create a stellar I-AA program. They nearly won the playoffs the first time they made it (1987), and they made deep runs for six straight years from 1991-96, winning the title twice.

Marshall was strong before Moss and afterward. The Herd moved up to I-A/FBS in 1997 and immediately became the MAC’s best program, winning conference titles in their first four tries, losing once, then winning a fifth. They won 36 of their first 40 games as an FBS team. That’s ridiculous.

The Herd were noticeably athletic, as much as a WVU that would go on to beat a ranked Virginia Tech and finish 7-5 with four tight losses. Only their conditioning appeared to be subpar compared to the Mountaineers. The Herd played with confidence, speed, and a chip on their shoulders, and they had WVU on the ropes.

Under first George Chaump (1986-89), then Jim Donnan (1990-95), then Bob Pruett (1996-2004), Marshall built a dynamite team through the process of identifying talent, nurturing it, and being willing to give second chances. In a way, that’s the same thing Holliday has done.

Holliday took over after Pruett successor Mark Snyder's tenure never really got off the ground. Snyder resigned after taking the Herd to just one bowl in five years, and Holliday — known mostly as an ace recruiter at NC State, Florida, and WVU — went to work.

Holliday's scholarship math is like that of a service academy. He brings in massively talented transfers, some of whom were kicked out of their last school. He utilizes prep schools. He offers blueshirts and greyshirts.

He does everything in his power to field an angry, athletic, exciting program, and when it works, it's devastating. Marshall went 23-5 in 2013-14; in 2014, the program finished in the AP top 25 for the first time since Pruett's 2002 team won its final MAC title. They lost a ton of key contributors after that season but still rallied to go 10-3 in 2015. Holliday's tenuous scholarship balancing act was continuing to pay off.

In 2016, everything came to a screeching halt.

Actually, it didn’t come to a halt; it went violently in reverse.


2016 in review

2016 Marshall statistical profile.

First, the defense cratered. In the first four games against FBS competition, the Herd allowed 205 points and 2,204 yards. Yes, that includes games against Louisville and Pitt, two of the best offenses in the country. It also includes games against Akron (98th in Off. S&P+) and North Texas (111th).

Marshall managed to score an average of 29 points in these four games and lost by an average of more than three touchdowns.

And then the offense stopped scoring.

  • First 4 games vs. FBS (0-4) — Avg. percentile performance: 17% | Avg. score: Opp 51, Herd 29 (-22) | Yards per play: Opp 7.5, Herd 4.7 (-2.8)
  • Last 11 games (2-5) — Avg. percentile performance: 22% | Avg. score: Opp 31, Herd 20 (-11) | Yards per play: Opp 6.1, Herd 4.8 (-1.3)

Ignoring a season-opening win over Morgan State, the season began in earnest with the Herd allowing a 34-0 run in a 27-point loss to Akron and finished a 60-6 humiliation at the hands of WKU. It only got slightly better in between.

How? Combination of things. (It’s always a combination of things.)

The Herd were already skating by with precarious depth. They were replacing two of their top three running backs, their top two receivers, an all-conference offensive lineman, four of seven defensive linemen, the top two linebackers, and about half their secondary. Even with good recruiting -- and on average, Holliday has recruited better than anyone in Conference USA -- you can hit a season with a young depth chart, or at least one that could be seriously problematic if the wrong injuries occur.

The wrong injuries occurred. Then some more did on top of that. Starting quarterback Chase Litton missed a couple of games. Only one running back, two receivers, and two linemen lasted all 12 games. On defense, only four regular linemen, two linebackers, and three defensive backs made it to the finish line without missing time.

We got an interesting glimpse of the lows even a well-maintained program can find if it both takes its eye off the ball a bit and gets detonated by injury. In six years under Holliday, Marshall had ranked 72nd or better in S&P+ four times and had only once ranked worse than 90th. They had averaged eight wins per year. In 2016, they went 3-9 and ranked 118th.

This was such a staggering fall that it's not immediately easy to assume a rebound. But Holliday's math has worked before, and the combination of new talent and good health could make it happen.

But damn. This was a stunning collapse. Even with the injuries.


Offense

Marshall offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

As the depth chart changed drastically week to week, Marshall found nothing it could do consistently well. When Litton was healthy, he was able to complete a pretty high percentage. From the FAU game through FIU (games 6-11), he hit 65 percent with 11 scores to four picks.

NCAA Football: Marshall at Pittsburgh
Chase Litton
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, if Michael Clark wasn't getting open downfield, these passes weren't really going anywhere. Clark averaged 17.1 yards per catch over about three catches per game; the other nine players who caught five or more passes last year averaged 9.9. Big plays didn't exist outside of Clark's dominion, and the run game was a disaster.

The ground attack had one asset: size. Back Keion Davis is big (6'1, 216), and backup Anthony Anderson (6'2, 252) is bigger. The Herd were alright in short-yardage situations; not as good as you'd think with that heft, but we're looking for relative strengths, and "85th in Power Success Rate" counts.

In theory, with experience and health, the Herd could become at least decent at rushing efficiently. Davis and Johnson aren't going to rip off a bunch of 80-yard runs, but 6-yarders have an effect. And maybe a change-of-pace guy like RB/slot guy Hyleck Foster can establish more of a big-play role.

The receiving corps gets a reset, though. It wasn't an incredible unit, but continuity is still usually a good thing. A new corps will form around some talented pieces:

  • Tight end Ryan Yurachek. The senior had an 80 percent catch rate and tied for the team lead with five receiving touchdowns.
  • Miami transfer Tyre Brady. The junior had seven catches for 99 yards against Nebraska and Cincinnati early in the Canes' 2015 season but didn't do much else. But his 112 total career receiving yards ranks him pretty high on the Marshall roster.
  • Foster, junior Donquell Green, and some other potential slot types. Marshall hasn't really ever figured out what to do with Foster, but he's unique and agile.
  • JUCO transfers Marcel Williams and Armani Levias. Williams is another slot-sized option (5'10, 170), and Levias could back Yurachek up at tight end.
  • Young newbies! Four-star freshman Darian Owens is a one-time UCLA commitment, and up to four other freshmen were three-stars per the 247Sports Composite. [Update: Little-used Oklahoma State WR Obi Obialo, a former three-star, has also transferred in.]

That's a solid list of assets. Almost no one has proved a damn thing, but the 1997-esque "Bring as much speed to the table as much bigger schools" philosophy is still in effect.

NCAA Football: St. Petersburg Bowl-Connecticut vs Marshall
Ryan Yurachek
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

We at least got some semblance of personality out of the defense.

Marshall defensive radar

In its good moments (of which there were not enough), coordinator Chuck Heater's defense stuffed the run, leveraged opponents into third-and-long, and assaulted the quarterback. The Herd ranked 69th in stuff rate, 30th in Adj. Sack Rate, and 63rd in havoc rate. They wanted to be fun and aggressive. It just didn't always work.

I'm not incredibly confident in the Marshall offense at this point, but I think the defense could rebound with voracity. A trio of returning ends (Ryan Bee, Blake Keller, Ty Tyler) combined for 17.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, and a pair of returning weakside linebackers (Chase Hancock and Frankie Hernandez) combined for 12 and 3.5, respectively.

Everybody above was on last year's bad defense, sure, but they'll potentially have more help. Junior tackles Nyquan Harris and Jason Smith could both turn into sustainable play-makers, and sophomore Channing Hames is pretty exciting. At linebacker, sophomore Omari Cobb might force his way on the field, and junior Miami transfer Juwon Young immediately becomes the school's most proven linebacker. Holliday also signed three-star JUCO LBs Donyae Moody and Artis Johnson. Oh yeah, and four-star freshman linebacker Jaquan Yulee could be ready to roll from day one.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Miami
Juwon Young
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It would surprise me if Marshall didn't have one of the best linebacking corps in Conference USA. And the line could be sturdier as well.

And if the run defense is an actual strength, the pass defense will benefit. Marshall allowed plenty of big pass plays last year, but corners Rodney Allen and Chris Jackson combined for five tackles for loss, four picks, and 21 breakups. If quarterbacks are forced to pass more in third-and-long, they could turn a few more of those breakups into picks. And if they don't, safeties Kendall Gant and C.J. Reavis could swoop in. Throw in three-star JUCO Kereon Merrell and mid-three-star freshman Sir Patrick Scott, and you've got an athletic secondary. That doesn't always translate to quality, but ... it often does.

Marshall v Florida Atlantic
Rodney Allen
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Special Teams

Hyleck Foster is a wonderfully efficient punt returner. Keion Davis is a high-caliber kick returner. Amoreto Curraj's kickoffs hit the end zone over half the time. And Marshall STILL ranked 111th in Special Teams S&P+ because Curraj was woefully inconsistent in the place-kicking department.

Curraj missed (or had blocked) three PATs, and while he went 4-for-5 on field goals under 40 yards, he was 0-for-5 over 40. Marshall was 125th in field goal efficiency, and that could have been costly had the Herd actually been playing in close games last year. (Only two were decided by fewer than 10 points.)

Marshall’s special teams unit could still be a nice field position weapon in 2017, but while you shouldn’t aim to finish drives with field goals, you still need to salvage three points when you can.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Miami (Ohio) 88 -0.2 50%
9-Sep at N.C. State 27 -22.3 10%
16-Sep Kent State 123 8.8 69%
30-Sep at Cincinnati 75 -10.6 27%
7-Oct at Charlotte 127 7.1 66%
14-Oct Old Dominion 93 0.8 52%
21-Oct at Middle Tennessee 89 -6.0 36%
28-Oct Florida International 104 3.6 58%
4-Nov at Florida Atlantic 99 -3.8 41%
11-Nov Western Kentucky 51 -11.0 26%
18-Nov at UTSA 91 -5.7 37%
25-Nov Southern Miss 84 -1.2 47%
Projected S&P+ Rk 101
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 115 / 74
Projected wins 5.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -13.6 (118)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 78 / 72
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 3.1
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (50%, 76%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.3 (-0.3)

I don't think there's any slow rebound from a season like last year; you either bounce back immediately, or you're fired. Holliday built a deadly Conference USA machine in Huntington, and the machine malfunctioned horribly last fall.

I don't know how patient Marshall's athletic director is, but I know this is a proud fanbase. Marshall means something. The Herd averaged nearly 25,000 in attendance last year, even as the team was falling apart. Huntington is a chip-on-shoulder town and enjoys rooting for a good, chip-on-shoulder team.

The Herd can absolutely bounce back. From a pure talent perspective, Holliday has added some impressive new pieces (assuming good eligibility) and could have the type of fast, physically imposing team he employed while winning 33 games from 2013-15.

It does feel like Marshall needs a set of projections. The Herd are projected 101st overall and projected to win about five games. Their slate is loaded with relative tossups (seven games between 36 and 58 percent win probability), but if they end up actually bouncing back stronger, the projected win total pretty quickly rises to seven or eight, at least. There is no unwinnable game if the Herd are again a top-75 team.

Oh yeah, and if Marshall's again in the 110s, 2-10 or so is possible.

Marshall is going to be fast and fascinating this year. Really, that goes for Conference USA, too.


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