Special teams miscues kill Thundering Herd
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- For about seven minutes Saturday, everything was okay for Marshall University's football team.
Yes, the offense was struggling, but Marshall's defense had gotten a forced fumble to set up its first touchdown.
After a failed offensive drive, Marshall punter Tyler Williams sent a 41-yard kick on a line drive into the breadbasket of UAB's Jackie Williams.
The next person to touch UAB's Williams was Marshall's Williams as the Thundering Herd punter attempted to stop the touchdown return.
It didn't work.
Jackie Williams danced into the end zone for a 79-yard touchdown that not only tied the game, but set the tone for the rest of the first half and UAB went on to win, 38-31, in Legion Field.
"Our defense did a nice job of creating a turnover down there and the offense stuck it in, but they came back with the punt return that created some momentum for UAB," Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. "We had guys right there to make plays. They just have to make them. Unfortunately, they just didn't do it."
The game wasn't just about the one play.
It was about an increasingly-prevalent problem in Marshall's special teams game.
Prior to the punt return, Marshall gave up a 42-yard kickoff return following the touchdown that set the Blazers up at midfield.
The kickoff coverage team was bailed out at that point by Keith Baxter's interception which left UAB with no points to show for its possession.
It didn't mask the problem, though.
UAB averaged 33 yards per kick return and had the punt return touchdown.
The Blazers also partially-blocked a Marshall punt, which was followed in four plays by a 33-yard touchdown pass from Austin Brown to Patrick Hearn.
Add in a roughing the punter penalty that could have set the Herd up with field position near midfield early in the third quarter while trailing by 17 and you get the end result.
Holliday has been quoted as always saying the game is about playing well in all three phases -- offense, defense and special teams.
This is one phase where the Herd is starting to let games slip through its grasp.
It happened against Tulsa earlier in a close loss, it happened against UCF in a blowout loss and the game changed again Saturday because of special teams.
Especially against Tulsa and UAB -- a pair of seven-point losses -- special teams greatly decided the outcomes.
In the end, the Herd's performance on special teams, or the lack thereof at crucial times, could be the difference between going to a bowl game or sitting at home in late December.