Chuck Landon: Even against weak Eagles, Herd earns sweet win
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- One step down, one to go.
During a bye week that fittingly fell precisely at the halfway point of Marshall's season, one premise became exceedingly clear.
The next two games were going to define Marshall's 2012 season.
If Marshall were going to achieve its preseason goals, satisfy reasonable expectations and show the anticipated amount of progress in Year Three of Doc Holliday's coaching tenure, the Herd needed to win its next two games.
That meant first defeating Southern Miss here Saturday in M.M. Roberts Stadium, then beating long-time rival UCF at 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27, in Edwards Stadium.
So far, so very good.
Marshall took a definitive step forward by dominating winless Southern Miss on both sides of the football during an impressive 59-24 win Saturday night.
It was easily Marshall's best performance of the season and, considering the circumstances, the most profound victory of the year.
And it couldn't have occurred at a more critical time for the Herd.
With the oddsmakers in Las Vegas favoring the Golden Eagles by a baffling four points, it seemed most people were throwing in the towel on Marshall.
But faced with a "win or else" situation, the Herd tossed the towel right back. ... and completed it for a touchdown pass.
And this was the Southern Miss team Las Vegas favored?
Marshall absolutely overwhelmed Southern Miss and exposed the over-matched Golden Eagles for the winless team they are and very possibly will remain.
That's how bad the Herd made Southern Miss look Saturday night. And, in the process, that's how much better Marshall appeared.
Talk about timing.
This was exactly the sort of positive step of progress Marshall needed to post before squaring off against a suddenly struggling UCF team in a Conference USA East Division showdown.
Sure, it's one game at a time.
And, believe me, this is one for Marshall to savor whether Southern Miss is winless or not.
So, let's do just that for a moment.
Marshall's once pass-happy offense showed outstanding balance for a second consecutive game, running wild against Southern Miss to the tune of 280 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries.
Yet, the passing game still was prolific, contributing 354 yards and three touchdowns.
Why, even the defense looked decent for the first time all season, contributing a stunning three sacks and hurrying Southern Miss quarterbacks with some well-timed linebacker blitzes that obviously caught the Golden Eagles by surprise.
This was the perfect primer, the quintessential warmup for the oh so essential second step.
Namely, Marshall vs. UCF.
This could very well be the biggest, most significant game in Holliday's head-coaching career.
That's how important a win over UCF would be. Most knowledgeable football people consider the Golden Knights as the premier team in Conference USA.
Why, even UCF's president believed the Knights were the team to beat. That's why he appealed NCAA sanctions, which allows UCF to compete for the C-USA championship.
There's only one significant obstacle standing in the way of UCF's East Division title run.
The Herd could derail UCF's bid and, in the process, take a huge step forward in wresting control of the East Division away from the Knights.
That is what Marshall has to do to reach its goal of competing for the 2012 C-USA championship.
One step down, one to go.
But it's the next step that will tell the tale.
Chuck Landon is a columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Call him at 304-526-2827 or email him at email@example.com.