The Golden Hurricane is ranked No. 1 in Conference USA in scoring (39.2 points per game), passing offense (378.6 yards per game) and total offense (571.8), and have gone over 600 yards of offense in each of its last two games. Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith is No. 1 in passing average, passing efficiency and total offense. But like the Herd, which features the No. 2 passer in C-USA in passing average (261.4 yards per game) and passing efficiency (a rating of 150.0, compared to Smith's 166.8) in MU QB Bernard Morris, TU has struggled defensively and, in fact, is worse than Marshall's injury-prone defensive unit in many categories.
While the Herd is allowing 38.2 points, 230 yards rushing and 217 yards passing per game, the Golden Hurricane (3-2, 1-1 in C-USA) allows 40.8 points, 207 rushing and 293 yards passing per game. Tulsa is last in C-USA in total defense, allowing 500 yards per game and 26 touchdowns while the Herd is seventh in the league in total defense (24 scores and 447 yards per game). Both teams have played tough schedules, with Tulsa having three home games so far, after opening with a road win at UL-Monroe 35-17. They beat BYU 55-47, losing to No. 6 (AP)/No. 5 (USA Today and Harris) Oklahoma and edging 1-4 UAB 38-30, despite 695 yards of offense. Last week, TU lost a big lead at UTEP and fell 48-47 to the Miners.
Meanwhile, Marshall has had only two home games, losing to No. 9/8/8 West Virginia, 42-23, and to FCS No. 11 New Hampshire, 48-35. Marshall has also lost at Miami, Fla., getting votes in the poll until being upset by North Carolina, by a score to 31-3 to those Hurricanes. Marshall lost at No. 17/15/17 Cincinnati, 40-14, and at Memphis last week by just three, 24-21. Tulsa will be the Herd's fourth road game in the first six of the season, part of a pattern since jumping to C-USA. MU opened at UCF in 2005, got UCF at home but then went on road for back to back league games with SMU and UAB and now opens '06 with its first two league games on road and the home opener on a Sunday night, not exactly a crowd-booster against Southern Miss next week.
Slow starts have also plagued the Herd, out-scored 48-5 in the first quarter this year and 88-69 last year. The cure? "Start fast," said Marshall head coach Mark Snyder laughing at his Tuesday press conference. "We're going to have to do this because (Tulsa) does start fast, the team we're playing. We really have no option this week." Tulsa, on the other hand, has out-scored opponents in only the third quarter (56-26) and is even with opponents in the first quarter, 45-45. "We have to break that habit...that's a bad habit to get into," said Snyder.
One way the Herd could get off to a faster start will be going downfield with the vertical passing game, something Snyder has emphasized during this long break. "We have to change our mindset a little bit over the next seven weeks, whether it is defensively blitzing early or offensively taking some shots, and if you don't hit them, at least you took some shots," said Snyder. "We're not starting fast anyway, so we're going to do some of that. The reason we are not at 40 (points) or so per game is we're not taking enough shots downfield. We're not starting fast and that has to stop."
Marshall's Cody Slate and Darius Passmore are the top receiving duo in the league, ranked three and four in catches and fifth and sixth in yards. Slate has 31 catches for 377 yards (12.2 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. Passmore has 29 catches for 384 yards (13.2 ypc) and four scores, and had a 69-yard touchdown called back last week on holding on Brian Leggett, plus a block in the back by Courtney Edmonson after Passmore was already in the end zone.
On top of that, freshman back Darius Marshall is ninth in C-USA in rushing (55.2 ypg), seventh in all-purpose yards (131.4 per game) and second on kickoff returns (26.6 per return). Snyder cautioned, however, that the youngster is not an every-down back and that he may be joined this week by fellow true freshman Terrell Edwards, who has gotten snaps with the first team with juniors Chubb Small and Kelvin Turner sidelined with the dreaded turf-toe that has hampered Morris as well. "I'm not sure Darius Marshall can run five snaps in a row," Snyder said of the youngster, who has accumulated 657 yards in five games running, receiving and returning for the Herd. "He's still a freshman and he's not very big, yet. For us to sit here and think he can carry the load, we're probably fooling ourselves a bit...because it seems the two times he has fumbled, it's been (due to) fatigue." Snyder said he has talked to Marshall, reminding him if he feels winded, it's OK to get yourself out of the game. "Those are some of the growing pains we're going through right now," said Snyder of the freshmen throughout the team.
On defense, the Herd has moved true freshman Johnny Jones from end to tackle to help the depth there. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound youngster has six tackles so far. Even red-shirt frosh end Michael Janac (6-4, 250) has taken snaps at tackle, with linebacker Ian Hoskins playing end when the Herd is in nickel. A big part of that move was the return of starting end John Jacobs this week, after missing four games with a broken hand. It marks the third starter to return defensively in the past three games, including Zearrick Matthews at corner two games ago and safety/nickel Aaron Johnson last week. All three will still wear casts to protect their arm (Matthews) or hands (A.Johnson and Jacob).
The return of starting middle linebacker Josh Johnson is not so sure, so Steve Dunlap, the Herd's defensive coordinator, has moved junior Maurice Kitchens to "Mike," or middle linebacker, and replaced him at "Will" (wide side of the field) backer with sophomore Mario Harvey. Harvey brings great speed, having been timed at a 4.3 40-yard dash while at Hargrave in 2005. Kitchens is tenth in C-USA in tackles at 8.5 per game, and has one of the two Herd's turnovers gained on an interception. Coaches are also hoping safety John Saunders can return from a quad injury, and Saunders is playing with a nose that was broken at Cincinnati. Saunders is tied for 13th in the league in tackles with 8.0 per game played while fellow safety C.J. Spillman is second among C-USA defenders with 11.2 tackles per game (56 total stops).