There is no loss of faith by the Thundering Herd team or its head coach, Mark Snyder, but the task is daunting. The Herd will welcome UCF this weekend for Marshall's 107th Homecoming game, a tradition dating back to the 1890s in Huntington. But the Knights have dominated the Herd since both programs joined C-USA from the Mid-American Conference, in 2005. Prior to the league switch, Marshall had won three in a row over the Knights but since joining the far-flung C-USA, UCF has won three in a row against the Herd, including pulling out its first win in Huntington in 2006 when kicker Michael Torres hit a 27-yard field goal with seven seconds left to beat the Herd 23-22 in a Wednesday night, ESPN game.
It will be Homecoming, however, and Marshall has not lost a Homecoming game since 1992, when Appalachian State beat Marshall 37-34. The Herd did go on that year to win the I-AA National Championship that year. Since 1993, Marshall has won 15 straight games in front of old grads and current students. The Knights knocked off the Herd last year in Orlando, 47-13, on the way to the Conference USA Championship and the Liberty Bowl, but this year finds the up-and-down Knights of head coach George O'Leary, who are 2-7 this year, 1-4 in league play after winning the title last year and playing for the title in 2005.
One of the keys for this game will be the offensive line, once again, being challenged by one of the best defenses in the league. UCF is tops in C-USA in passing efficiency defense and second in total defense. Senior Matt Altobello, the Herd's fifth-year starting right guard, knows the team's front line has another challenge in the UCF defense. The question, like last week, is can he and the offensive line, including fellow senior center Brian Leggett, a sophomore in left guard Chad Schofield and red-shirt freshmen tackles C.J. Wood and Ryan Tillman, stop that tough front of UCF and break their win streak against the Herd.
"You have to turn it around quick," said Altobello. "It stings a little bit, but we've got to turn around and play the next game." Altobello, not sure about where he is headed after Marshall football is no longer a part of his life, is sure about what the team has to do, starting with UCF. "Marshall football has been my life, I'll kind of be lost without it. We'll just take it over the next three weeks and, hopefully, play on from there."
"You definitely have a challenge each and every week (in Conference USA)," said the senior from Keyser, W.Va. "This is another challenge, and you've got to take that to practice, to film study. It's our next game and we have to win our next game." Altobello is also happy with the way the young players have progressed up front on the line, with freshman like Wood and Tillman and the sophomore Schofield starting regular the past few games, in Schofield's case, or all season.
"C.J. has come along, and I love playing alongside of him. Ryan has really come along too, and Chad stepped up when Josh (Evans) had to go out. The back-ups are progressing too, working hard and getting better each day in practice.They come out and do their job every day, and that's what they need to do. Some of them get down, and they come to me and tell them just to keep going." Altobello speaks from experience, being a four-year back-up before becoming a starter in his fifth year.
UCF's defense has some size, specifically in junior tackle Torrell Troup at 320-pounds, but nothing like the Herd faced last week at East Carolina. But UCF is faster, and has 26 sacks in nine games, while the Herd has allowed just eight sacks of red-shirt freshman quarterback Mark Cann. In the past two games, running back Darius Marshall has topped 100-plus yards, with 102 and a touchdown versus Houston and 123 yards against the Pirates. He also topped 100 yards against Illinois State (115/TD), Memphis (140/TD) and at Southern Miss (112/TD).