• Mark Baker

Thundering Herd Midterms

by Mark Baker, Blogger for @Sidelines_SN and freelance writer

@HerdFan1216 @Sidelines_Herd

 

These opinions are mine and not that of Marshall University. All photos are done myself or by searching different platforms.

 


I have started several articles over the last six weeks covering my beloved Herd, however fate seemed to step in more than expected. I was either too high or too low on my team so none found its way to being published. It's probably for the best, seeing the way this season has gone up and down like the Big Dipper on a good day at Camden Park.

Injuries, resignations, leaves of absence, some of the sweetest victories this program has EVER achieved, but some of the most gut wrenching losses as well all factor into Marshall's inaugural campaign in the Sun Belt. This work is solely my own opinion on the team and staff and it's not formed off of any of our popular online forums. How I gauge this article as well as any future article is mainly by studying stats as well as paying close attention to the intangibles on Saturdays from my season ticket holder perch two rows back from the field.

Disclaimer: I am in no way a professional at this, but I have had a deep love for the game of football as well as Marshall University which qualifies me to write on such topics. So enough of my ramblings and validation attempts, let's get down to just what has gone on with The Thundering Herd:

For this article I am going to break my grades down as a team, covering all three areas (offense, defense, special teams) as well as explain my position on the coaching staff. Certain skill positions I will also break down as well as give my take on our game day atmosphere and the conditions at The Joan. Here......we.......go!!!


OFFENSE

It seems to me as if our offense struggles from multiple personality disorder. They started out on fire against Norfolk State and did what they were supposed to do against an inferior FCS team, racking up 55 points and getting almost the entire offense onto the field for at least a series. The passing game was highly efficient, Khalan Laborn solidified his ability as a starter, and our line allowed Henry Colombi enough time to make a sandwich before going through his progressions.



The problem here was that despite the almost perfect execution when we had the ball, it still gave the fans and the staff no real indication on our team. Beating the living Hell out of a smaller school might appear to give some indications of the capability of the players and team, but it usually ends with creating a false narrative. The very next week this team went into South Bend, Indiana to take on one of the most storied programs in NCAA history. What seemed to be a tune up game for Notre Dame quickly became a learning lesson for The Irish as Marshall dominated the Irish with a balanced air and ground game. Colombi maintained consistency and poise, Khalan Laborn shredded the supposed stout Irish defense for over 150 yards and a pair of scores, and the offense never gave up. It would have appeared that this Herd team was the complete package and a force to be reckoned with. Their offense wasn't anything flashy, but it could move the chains and put the ball in the end zone with a brutal running game and efficient passing attack. When the scoreboard saw all zeroes and the Herd ahead 26-21 (this score doesn't even do the game justice, as a very late score closed the gap in what really was a statement outing) the Herd made themselves known to everyone who pays any attention to sports that they were for real. The limits were endless, with many CFB projections placing the Herd in the coveted access Bowl against Oklahoma.



The following week the Herd took their unprecedented momentum to Bowling Green (a stadium that has never been friendly to the Kelly green and white) in a throwback matchup of old MAC days against the unorthodox offense of the Falcons. The Herd went up a quick two scores and appeared as if it would be over before the half, however, adjustments and an unpredictable BG offense battled back to tie the game at 21 by halftime. The second half didn't fare better for Marshall as costly turnovers inside of the red zone contributed to the Herd's first loss of the season, 34-31 in overtime. Now we would see what this team was made of. Were they fighters? Did they possess resiliency ?

The next contest saw the Herd squaring off against the Troy Trojans, their first ever SBC conference game, completing a four game excursion away from the confines of Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Would there be reclamation? Would the Herd come out and handle business like they've shown the CFB world they are capable of? Would the inaugural Sun Belt campaign fare well for Henry Colombi and the offense? Unfortunately, the answer is no. A formidable defense proved to be the dividing wall between the Herd and a victory as Marshall fell 16-7 in a game that saw the offense struggle to move the ball for the first time all season. Turnovers that went for scores, a sudden inability to pass block, and an uninspiring effort made this season even more confusing as the Herd fell to 2-2. It was beyond painful to watch as the Herd was put into position on several occasions to open up their offense, but every chance was squandered with numerous 3 and outs to go along with multiple turnovers and thrown away passes as Colombi faced pressure every single snap.

It was a frustrating game to watch to say the least. Waiting and watching the offense take over with a chance to capitalize throughout the game and not being able to score more than 7 points

was beyond pitiful. Not because my fandom exceeds reality or that I'm such a homer I expect my Herd to come out and dominate every game.....but for the simple fact that this same offense owned the best defense they would face all season when they defeated Notre Dame. It just wasn't making sense (and still doesn't).


The Herd found themselves the following week at home to take on Gardner-Webb. Usually you would never see two FCS schools on the same schedule, but with the move to the Sun Belt and a shift of what was originally a non conference matchup against Appalachian State to conference play, the Herd had to take what they could. Maybe this game was exactly what the team needed.....a chance to recharge the batteries and get the offense back on track while they destroy another middle of the road FCS team.


Well, that didn't necessarily happen.....sure the Herd walked out with a 28-7 victory, but it wasn't a pretty one by any means. The offense still struggled against arguably the most porous defense they would face all season. The passing game was lethargic at best, the offensive line still looked confused picking up their assignments, and that confidence and swagger this offense had previously possessed was nowhere to be found. The only bright spot for the offense was the consistent play of Laborn, who torched The Bulldogs for over 190 yards. At this point in the season, the Florida State transfer had recorded over 100 yards in all five games. The area that was most questionable before the season started with Rasheen Ali's mysterious absence had become the focal point of our gameplan.



Marshall's contest against reigning Sun Belt Conference Champions Louisiana, on paper, was a matchup highly favoring The Herd. Gone was the dominant Ragin Cajuns squad that had strolled through the SBC last season, and in its place was an offense struggling to find its identity with an inexperienced defense giving up lots of yards to opposing running backs. Throw in the first home game in the SBC, an unveiling of all black uniforms, a nationally televised ESPN 2 event, and not to mention revenge from last seasons loss in The New Orleans Bowl all were extra spark for the Herd to come out and make statement that we were a solid addition to a rising conference......


Well, as I'm almost certain you can see a pattern developing here, none of that happened. An early injury to starting QB Henry Colombi allowed Cam Fancher his first considerable time running the offense. Fancher is a dual threat QB that leans more on his running ability than picking apart a secondary. That SHOULD have fared as an unforeseen bonus as well, but it didn't. Fancher went 7-9 in a game where he seemed completely lost, more anemic than the Herd offense had become in recent weeks. Once again missed opportunities and bad passing negated everything positive the run game did. Laborn still racked off 120 yards and 2 scores, but by this time in a season, defensive coordinators pick up on tendencies, and when a team continues to be more dependent on the run, it's duly noted. A 23-13 loss was the end result, against another school we have shown we are clearly capable of beating, placing the Herd at 3-3 overall (with only 1 FBS victory) and dead last in the Sun Belt East Division. At this point the 2016 season started to look very possible of repeating itself. That season, a vicious sack on Chase Litton against Akron changed every aspect of the team and we finished 3-9 after being predicted to win Conference USA by just about every media outlet. What was expected to be a phenomenal season full of accolades ended in disaster. Sound similar? This team is talented, especially the offense. I may be in the minority here, but we have playmakers, we have physical guys who can get the job done, but THAT team has all but disappeared. I've sat in the stands every Saturday waiting for the Herd offense that executed and outplayed Notre Dame to show up, even if just a fraction of it, but it's never resurfaced. What we are seeing, as a whole, is a complete meltdown. Yes I love watching Laborn churn out yards and ignite hope in our fans, but when it doesn't equate to wins, then is it all for nothing? When the offense has become so predicated on the run it hinders you because no defense respects the passing attack, then what good are the gawdy stats? Laborn is a beast, no questions asked. He is clearly Coach Huffs best find in the transfer portal, but he cannot be our entire offense and somehow translate that to success. We are watching that unfold this year, with slim chances of it changing.




The James Madison Dukes were our next opponent, and I didn't see much chance for us to even be competitive. Here was an offense that had destroyed everyone they played to a record of 6-1 in their first season as an FBS member. Add to that Can Fancher getting the starting nod for starter Henry Colombi, who was still in concussion protocol. Luck seemed to balance the scales a bit, as JMU's star QB Todd Centeio was injured in practice the week of the game. Now we would watch two QB's making their first collegiate starts......the confusion never ends for the enigmatic Herd as Marshall spoiled JMU's homecoming in a 26-12 victory. Fancher still didn't look like a true starter, the line still forgot how to pass block, but we were able to do just enough in the passing game to balance another 100+ effort from Laborn. 15-31 for 159 yards, a score, and two picks went into the stat book for Fancher. Not flashy, not impressive, not efficient, but enough.

The Herd registered their first conference win, got above .500 and ideally gained some momentum moving into the second half of the season, one which would fare Marshall against the SBC East's finest. Could we keep the train at least operational?

Making their first ever trip to Huntington was our next opponent Coastal Carolina and Heisman hopeful Grayson McCall. Coastal has seen recent success with McCall at the helm, although this season their offensive production had been erased by a defense giving up Madden like points. The Chanticleers came into the game at 6-1, which is due to McCall and company being able to outscore their opponents.


For some reason, Fancher got the starting nod, although Colombi had cleared protocol. This decision still upsets me. I am in no way a coach, but this is unacceptable by all accounts. You have a P5 transfer QB who came from an Air Raid offensive system, and found moderate success while he was there, going up against a secondary that can't seem to stop anyone. You would think that's an automatic decision, but apparently not in this coaching regime, as Fancher was awarded the starting gig. What transpired was a 24-13 defeat in a game we could have easily won. For the first time all season, Laborn was held under 100 yards, but our offensive line meshed for the first time in weeks, giving Fancher more than enough time to shred the secondary.....but he didn't. Yes he put up over 300 yards through the air, but his inexperience leading a collegiate offense was apparent as drives stalled in the red zone. Just when the Herd seemed to find its rhythm, an avoidable sack would set the offense back and erase surefire points. The receiving game found some things to be hopeful for, as Corey Gammage went for 187 yards, but it still didn't translate to a victory. I will go out on a limb here and say had Colombi been out there, we could have dropped 40 on this secondary. They were that bad.

4-4 and still dead last in the SBC East is underachieving for an offense that is more than capable. The 2 QB system Coach Huff decided to incorporate further aided the inconsistency of this struggling offense. I have seen polar opposites with this unit this season. When the line does their job, we are a completely different team. When Colombi has time and isn't running for his life, he's a 70% passer. He was never expected to come in and be a Byron Leftwich, or Chad Pennington, or Rakeem Cato, and he started the season out as the efficient manager he was needed to be. He can shred a secondary and has in his brief time donning the Kelly green and white, but he can't do it when opposing defenses are meeting him immediately after the snap. Now it's quite possible he will see the rest of his final season from the sidelines. No QB in college football could be successful in those circumstances, yet most programs wouldn't abandon the QB and alter their whole offensive gameplan. We did, and this is what we get......So, a little over halfway through this season and I have to make some grades for the sake of this article.....I will break it into a few different grades.


QUARTERBACK PLAY


C-


This is not a grade influenced by an inconsistent offensive line. This is a middle of the pack grade for a team that has laughably used a 2 QB system as of late and it has been a contributing factor to the inability to find success on the field. Colombi's first three games as a starter (Yes he personally had a solid outing against BG) keeps this grade from being much worse. Fancher hasn't given me any reason to put stock in him being our guy moving forward (Pete Zamora I believe is THAT guy). To be successful in CFB, you have to have a unquestioned leader on the field running the offense, and Fancher is not it. I personally hope we see #3 in the starting role this week when we take on Old Dominion because he puts us in the best position to be productive through the air, but I highly doubt that will be the case. Fancher has shown progress these last few weeks, but he doesn't have the experience Colombi does, and it's evident. He is making better decisions, he has improved his throws, but his ill timed decisions to either throw the ball away or take a sack counters the improvements he has made in other areas. Let's just be honest here, had JMU started Todd Centeieo, we would be looking at a 3-5 season with no current SBC wins.


RUNNING BACK PLAY


A


This has been our only shining light consistently all season. Khalan Laborn is a monster, and because of his talent and ability, we have at least a chance of salvaging this season. Prior to the Coastal game he was top 2 nationally in rushing yards with 13 TDs. He is called upon between 20-30 times a game which is an insane workload, but he has answered the call. After Laborn, there hasn't been enough of a sample to gauge where the rest of the committee stands. AJ Turner seems like he has the potential to be explosive for us, and Ethan Payne is a strong runner who turned in his best performance of the season in the Norfolk State opener, finishing as the team leader in rushing yards. This season was supposed to be a 1-2 punch of Rasheen Ali and Khalan Laborn, yet we sadly won't get to see that any, if at all this year.


RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS


C


This corp hasn't been the forefront of The Herd at all this season, and they were never expected to be. Gammage is a stud, Keaton and Harrison have that explosive ability to scorch would-be defenders, and a lot of the younger wideouts have shown promise, but they haven't really done anything convincing to warrant a higher grade. That's not their fault entirely, but what sets apart a good receiving group from an average one is their ability to create separation, make contested catches, and create yards after the catch. We haven't really done any of those things this year.


OFFENSIVE LINE


C


About the only consistency I'm seeing after breaking down these positions is mediocrity. This line has been tough at times, yet have forgotten the basics to their jobs more times than not. It doesn't make sense to watch them dominate the trenches against a well respected Notre Dame team, then allow every defender on the field a clean shot at our quarterbacks against weaker defensive fronts. We have depth at the position too so fresh legs aren't an issue. We have experience, we have a few transfers who have seen solid playing time at their former schools, yet they haven't figured out how to operate as a single unit. The Coastal game was the first time in a long time that they were able to give our QB time to operate, so maybe they can use that heading into this week's game.....we will see



OFFENSE OVERALL


C


Pedestrian at best. Hindered by their own inconsistency and mistakes, this offense can put on a clinic at times, but has starred in some bad horror films. Our gameplan is geared around Laborn, but he can't do it all, and it's thoroughly anticipated by every remaining DC on our schedule. Our passing game only has to be average for us to be balanced enough to add a few W's to the win column. This team could very well be 8-0, but something bigger is the problem (which I will get into shortly). I hope that somehow the team doesn't totally lose its focus like we've seen in past years.


Yes I know these stats are fluid, but to be in top of multiple categories is proof of the ability of the defense.



DEFENSE


( Since the season was just dissected a bit more extensively I am going to use the team stats rather than individual for defensive purposes and will highlight the standout players at the end)



After recapping the offense so far this season, the Herd defense has been a total opposite. They are consistent, they are punishing, they fly to the ball, they get after opposing QBs, they force turnovers, and they come to play. Them coming to each game prepared is the key reason the Herd is sitting at 4-4 right now and not 1-7. Last season it was a bit different, as passing attack after passing attack exploited our secondary on long plays and basic cover schemes. Not this year. Our defensive coaching staff has had a full year to adjust and implement their scheme, and the aggressiveness on the defensive side in recruiting and utilizing the transfer portal has improved our roster significantly while creating depth. As I was looking at team defensive stats prior to starting this section, I found Marshall at or near the top in almost every category, and that is beyond impressive for a school the size of Marshall.




They didn't allow a TD in the opener against Norfolk State, surrendering a mere FG and only 114 total yards in a total domination of The Spartans. The following week against Notre Dame it was the defense that was talked about by the NBC commentators. This unit had the ND QB beyond scared every single time he dropped back to pass. What was viewed as a sure thing for Irish fans ended up being a long night for the Irish offense.




They contained the Irish playmakers, they disrupted every running lane, and that produced several turnovers en route to a monumental win for the Herd. The toughest challenge all season, in theory, was just handled with relative ease. The Bowling Green game the next week was a rarity. This is a high powered AND highly unpredictable offense and this is the ONLY time this season that the Herd D didn't come out and play to expectations, surrendering 34 points in the team's first loss of the year. Maybe it was post ND arrogance, maybe it was a lack of preparation, but the game was overall a shootout by both offenses with minimal to no defense. 3 Herd turnovers were the deciding factor on the scoreboard without question. 3 games into the season and we have seen the defense step up and outplay one of the best teams year in and year out in the country, completely own a team they were clearly better than, and give up the most points and yards to an offense that gives most defenses fits. What doesnt get talked about in discussions, message boards, or appear in stats, are the intangibles. This defense scares its opponents. They hit hard, they swarm the ball, they defend, and they have done it being on the field the majority of the games. They are deserving of their place in all of the defensive rankings. Most defenses have niches amongst their positions. Whether it's a ball hawking secondary or a chaotic front 7, defenses are generally known for a specific aspect of their game, but this Herd defense is truly doing special things. They have NO weakness to their game, they execute with near perfection every single thing they do, which is very rare. They get after the quarterback, they make it very tough to run against, and their secondary contests every ball that finds the air (when the D-Line doesn't deflect them). Offensive coordinators beyond respect this unit and it's proven through short 4th down situations where the staff sends the punting unit out rather than roll the dice. The Troy game was a bittersweet win for the defense, although it ended with a loss, the defense kept the Trojans offense out of the end zone entirely, forcing a good offense to settle for 3 FGs and a Troy defensive TD in the kickoff to the Sun Belt era for Marshall. This was a game where the "bend, don't break" attitude was obvious. Yes Troy dropped over 300 yards through the air, but couldn't turn any of those yards into a scoring play. The Herd defense won the turnover battle as well, forcing an INT and 2 fumbles in a game that would have been won if the offense only had the slightest pulse. What we were seeing out of the defense that couldn't be matched by the offense was consistency. I'm not talking game to game either. What I'm referring to is every single series they play lights out.

The Gardner Webb game proved another opportunity for the defense to exert its dominance and they did, not allowing a single point, forcing four turnovers, and less than 150 total yards in a 28-7 win (GW put their lone points by a pick 6) Granted this was the expected outcome and by this point in the year it was not a shock that The Herd defense tallied another impressive performance.

The Louisiana Raging Cajuns came to town for a midweek game with the Herd having a much needed break in between. A backup, but seasoned, QB got the start and found success through the air. Once again, the Louisiana offense weren't able to do anything flashy or impressive but they were able to do enough to put 23 points on the board and find a way to convert drives. I don't fault our defense whatsoever for any of the losses this year, but this game especially saw our defense take the field after countless 3 & outs by a horrid Herd offense. They still answered the call and didn't allow themselves to get exposed, but they also didn't put much pressure on the Cajuns QB or force any turnovers in the game, which played a role in the outcome.



The JMU game showed just how vital the Herd defense is, holding a usually potent and air attack offense to 12 points while forcing 5 turnovers and not allowing the Dukes offense to complete a single 3rd down on 17 attempts. Owen Porter garnered weekly awards for his performance in this game (9 TCKL, 3.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL)




The Coastal Carolina game would feature the biggest challenge from a defensive standpoint. Veteran signal caller Grayson McCall has aided in the Chanticleers success and more than likely will be making a living throwing the ball around on Sundays next season, so the Herd definitely had their work cut out for them. What started as a complete self destruction turned into one of the best defensive adjustments I have ever witnessed. McCall and the CCU offense used RPO, the option, play action, and spread formations to skip into the end zone 3 times in the first quarter and a 21-0 early lead. Stunned, the Herd defense adjusted, settled in, and dug themselves out of a deep hole, allowing only 3 points the rest of the game, still not being enough overall to overcome the initial deficit. McCall finished the day with a meager 121 yards through the air, which is uncharacteristic of the experienced gunslinger. He was constantly under pressure in the final three quarters and couldn't find a rhythm against the resurging Herd.

I get it that a win is a win and a loss is a loss in the grand scheme of things, but this defense has absolutely no reason to hang their heads on this mediocre season. A season that has flashed slivers of promise throughout has been accompanied by agony, anger, and disappointment . These guys leave everything on the field everytime they step out there, and it's truthfully sad that we can't compliment their continuous effort with a capable offense.

One of the many reasons this team has found success throughout this season is their depth across the roster. They can constantly sub in, constantly keep fresh legs in, AND see minimal drop off, if any. They play as a team and have developed much chemistry amongst each other on the field. They know they intimidate offenses, and they take pride in it.


DEFENSIVE LINE


A





This section of the defense has done everything imagineable. They've shut down running games, they disrupt passing games, they pressure and get to opposing QBs like clockwork, they have put the work in for the respect they have gained. 87.1 ypg and 2.7 ypc explains everything. The biggest contributors this year to the D Line is Kentucky transfer Isaiah Gibson who has been an immovable force whenever he lines up as well as Koby Cumberlander, whose name always seems to be called due to his nature of finding and pursuing the ball.


He has recorded 29 total tackles, 7.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks to go along with 2 FR to lead all of the defensive line statistically




LINEBACKERS


A


This is where things get ugly....for whatever offense faces the Herd. This is probably the best portion of the defense, if there was anyway to determine a "best". Owen Porter, Eli Neal, Abraham Beauplan, and Charlie Gray load this position group with talent. I would be safe to say this group could match up with any LB corp in the country.



SECONDARY

B+


It's a rarity for a non P5 school to have a player with lineage to stars in the NFL, but to have 2 on the same G5 school AND in the same position group? Astronomical!!!! That is what the Herd has though in shut down corners Steven Gilmore (brother to current Colts CB Stephon Gilmore) and Micah Abraham (son to NFL great Donnie Abraham). They both have lived up to their namesake to say the least, accounting for 46 combined tackles, 7 interceptions, and a decisive pick 6 that all but sealed the Irish's fate in week 2. These guys play exceptionally well off of each other and play spoiler to many passing game schemes. I wouldn't be surprised to see one, if not both of these guys following their family's footsteps into the NFL once they hang up their Herd jerseys.




You can't talk about the Herd secondary without mentioning senior Andre Sam, who has found his role in this secondary as a starting safety. Sam has brought his very best from the opening kickoff for The Herd, which has translated into 41 tackles and a pick.



The only thing that has this position group from an A are the Bowling Green, Troy, and Louisiana games....sure they weren't exploited by any means, but they didn't do their jobs near to their potential either. Sometimes setting such a high bar can come with a let down when that bar isn't reached every single game.


DEFENSE OVERALL


A


This side of the ball is why the Herd are 4-4. They have responded to countless 3 & outs by a stagnant offense, and they've came out swinging every single time. Against Notre Dame, they were expected to be intimidated by the environment and the Irish offensive line, however, before halftime it was The Herd defense putting the fear of Touchdown Jesus into the Irish offense. They play angry, they play with passion and heart, and most importantly they play as a team, leaving personal stat opportunities to the side for the overall gain of the team. It's hard to gauge a specific part of any Herd team against former ones, but this defense is well into the discussion as ending this year as the greatest Herd defense that's taken the field.


SPECIAL TEAMS


D


Let's sum this up as quick as I can. The kicking game isn't anything to write home about, the punting game isn't anything to write home about, the kick AND punt return teams haven't created electric a single time this year on a return so yea....they're forgettable......but they're young so there is room for improvement and corrections. The kick coverage team I didn't even factor into this grade but they do a solid job in coverage.




COACHING STAFF




C-