Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Every game ended up mattering for the Thundering Herd in 2011, as Marshall finished 7-6 overall, as it returned to the postseason for just the second time in seven years.
Coach Doc Holliday's second season at the helm began with a loss to West Virginia (34-13) in an in-state rivalry game that was called early due to harsh weather conditions. The Thundering Herd bounced back with what turned out to be a vital victory over Southern Miss (26-20) in their home opener, but lost in their next two outings at Ohio (44-7) and versus Virginia Tech (30-10).
Marshall ended its non-conference slate with a triumph over Louisville (17-13), but could not repeat its success when it took the field against UCF (16-6). The Herd downed Rice (24-20) before being blown out by the high-powered offense of the Houston Cougars (63-28). MU split its next two with a win at Joan C. Edwards Stadium over UAB (59-14) and a road loss to the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa (59-17).
However, Holliday's squad pulled it together when it mattered most. Marshall sat at 4-6 with two games remaining, but reeled off consecutive victories over Memphis (23-22) and East Carolina (34-27) to become bowl eligible.
The Thundering Herd earned an invitation to the Beef 'O' Brady Bowl where they outplayed the FIU Panthers (20-10) to improve to 7-3 in program history in bowl games. Marshall ended with a 5-3 Conference USA record which was good for second place in the East Division.
OFFENSE: Marshall's success in 2011 was not because of its inexperienced offensive unit. The Herd finished the season ranked 107th in the NCAA in total offense (333.4 yards per game), which was the second worst in the C-USA.
Quarterback Rakeem Cato was the first true freshman to start the season opener for the team since Chad Pennington put on kelly green. Cato lost his job to the scrambling A.J. Graham in the middle of the season due to a lack of production, but returned after his backup went down with an injury. The dismissal of Graham from the program during the offseason eliminated any possible battle for the starting spot which should take any additional pressure off of Cato heading into his sophomore season.
Cato has some of the best weapons in the C-USA to utilize in the senior receiving combo of Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson. Dobson (6-3, 204) put himself on the radar of NFL scouts with spectacular highlight reel catches week after week. He earned an All-C-USA honorable mention after leading the team in yards (668), catches (49), and touchdown receptions (12). Wilson started 10 of 12 games last season. Senior WR Andre Booker should also be in the mix. Adding more depth, Holliday announced in mid-August that elusive senior WR Devon Smith (5-7, 147) decided to transfer from Penn State and will be eligible immediately due to the NCAA's sanctions against his former school.
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg has both of his top rushers Tron Martinez and Travon Van back. Marshall's best performances on the ground in 2011 came when Graham stepped in as a run-first QB. The Thundering Herd need their young, but deep offensive line to perform better overall to make the running game a realistic threat for the first time since Ahmad Bradshaw departed.
DEFENSE: The strength of the defense lost its leader in the spring when the C- USA Defensive Player of the Year Vinny Curry was drafted in the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Curry helped the Herd lead the league and finish fifth in the NCAA in tackles for loss (7.9 per game). Junior DE Jeremiah Taylor, who led the team with 11 quarterback hurries in 2011 returns up front. The Herd's defensive line is deeper this season, but it relies more on speed rushing than power. Senior Devin Arrington (6-2, 209) moved from the secondary to linebacker position. Arrington joins T.J. Ross (6-0, 220) and Jermaine Holmes (5-11, 238) to make up a very fast and athletic group of LBs.
"Fundamentals are where we have to be great. We can run and we're strong and we have the schemes where we can attack people, but it���s about fundamentals. Tackle and get off blocks." said defensive coordinator Chris Rippon.
The secondary was given a major facelift with the additions of A.J. Leggett, Dominick LeGrande, and Okechukwu Okoroha. Leggett, who was originally destined to play for Miami-Florida, is one of the most highly anticipated recruits in the program's history. He is expected to see time at cornerback as a true freshman. LeGrande and Okoroha brought experience and leadership from Chestnut Hill after the safeties transferred from Boston College to Marshall in June. Both graduated from BC in four years, which makes them eligibly immediately, but for just one season. Junior CB Darryl Roberts will appreciate the help as he aims for an all-league selection.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Marshall's special teams ranked in the top four in the C-USA in kick and punt returns in 2011. Booker and the newly added Devon Smith are the best options in the return game. Holliday lost experienced starters at placekicker and punter in the offseason. The preseason battles to take over the vacant starting kicker position feature redshirt sophomore Justin Haig and redshirt freshman Trent Williams. The competition for the starting punter spot is between true freshman Tyler Williams and redshirt freshman Austin Dumas.
OUTLOOK: The Thundering Herd appear to be headed in the right direction under Holliday. Marshall overcame a rocky start caused by a non-conference schedule that would have challenged any team in the FBS to reach the postseason in 2011. This season looks even more promising.
"Lots of people say we're going 8-4," said Holliday about the team's expectations. "I say 'Which four are we going to lose?' We go into every game thinking we're going to win."
MU opens up the season on the road on September 1 with the annual Friends of Coal Bowl versus its only in-state rival, West Virginia. The Herd then have three winnable games in a row as they host Western Carolina and former MAC rival Ohio University, before traveling to the Lone Star State to begin C-USA play against Rice. The non-conference slate ends with solid road challenge against Purdue on September 29.
Marshall's league schedule is much more favorable this season as it gets to host Tulsa, UCF, and Houston at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Holliday's team lost its superstar, but so did many other teams in the C-USA. Marshall fans should have high expectations this season with a more balanced team and a sophomore quarterback that has proven to be a mentally resilient player.
The Herd missed the Conference USA Championship by one game last season. The developing program is a contender for its first-ever Conference USA title in 2012.