The 2017 season for the Marshall Thundering Herd football team was viewed at by most fans as a defining season in the tenure of head coach Doc Holliday.
Everyone involved with Marshall football wanted to get the bad taste out of the program’s collective mouth from a disappointing 2016 season that saw the Herd finish 3-9 after three straight seasons of 10 or more wins.
And with many returning players and new additions, Marshall had the pieces in place to rebound immediately. The season began with a season-opening win over rival Miami (OH) 31-26 in a game in which the Herd had two special teams touchdowns and one defensive touchdown.
Marshall was 1-0 with a road game looming at North Carolina State of the ACC and for the first half, the Herd looked as if it could pull off the upset. But after gaining a 20-10 lead midway through the second quarter, mistakes plagued the Herd from that point on and went on to lose a much closer than it looked 37-20 game to the would-be Top 25-ranked Wolfpack.
The Herd rebounded the following week with a shutout 21-0 home win over Kent State to improve to 2-1 on the season heading into its bye week. Following the bye week, Marshall headed back out on the road for the final time in non-conference play to battle the Cincinnati Bearcats of the AAC.
Marshall played exceptionally well for the bulk of the game and opened up a 24-0 halftime lead before rounding out a 38-21 win to improve to 3-1 on the season and earn its first win over Cincinnati since defeating the Bearcats in the 2000 Motor City Bowl.
C-USA play was up next with a road game at Charlotte to open things up. Despite a not so impressive offensive performance, the Herd’s defense shined and led the team to a 14-3 win over the 49ers to improve to 4-1 and 1-0 in C-USA play.
The Herd returned home to battle the Old Dominion Monarchs on homecoming and shook off a slow first half by routing ODU 35-3 to improve to 5-1 and 2-0 in C-USA play. Up next was a key Friday night road game at Middle Tennessee, a place the Herd had never won at since the Blue Raiders joined C-USA.
But this time around, Marshall wouldn’t allow another loss at MTSU and the Herd went on to blow out the Blue Raiders 38-10 to clinch bowl eligibility at 6-1 overall and 3-0 in C-USA play. The first half of the season went about as well as it could have gone, but the second half of the season would see much different results.
Second Half Shortcomings
The Herd gave an uninspiring performance at home against Florida International the following week and could not come back from a 35-7 deficit, falling 41-30 to the Panthers to fall to 6-2 and 3-1 in C-USA play.
Up next was a huge game at East Division-leading Florida Atlantic and despite Marshall being tied with the Owls midway through the third quarter, it could not overcome the turnover bug and FAU escaped with a 30-25 win to drop the Herd to 6-3 overall and 3-2 in C-USA play.
A game with much significance followed against Western Kentucky at home in a game in which the Marshall program honored the 75 souls lost in the November 14, 1970 plane crash. And despite a valiant fourth-quarter effort by the Hilltoppers, the Herd prevailed 30-23 to improve to 7-3 and 4-2 in C-USA play.
Marshall made its first-ever trip to UTSA the following week to battle the Roadrunners in a defensive struggle. The Herd scored its first points of the game with under two minutes remaining to take a 7-6 lead, but UTSA drove down the field and connected on a game-winning field goal to take a 9-7 win to drop Marshall to 7-4 and 4-3 in C-USA play.
The regular season came to a tough end for the Herd on senior day against Southern Miss and after the Herd scored what appeared to be the game-tying touchdown with little time remaining, a mishap on the extra point cost Marshall and the Golden Eagles went on to win it 28-27 to send the Herd into postseason play at 7-5 overall and 4-4 in C-USA play.
After a 6-1 start to the season, the Herd stumbled at the finish line and finished just 1-4 with three losses by a combined eight points. Marshall was that close to playing for the C-USA Championship, but despite a disappointing finish to the season, the Herd was still bowl bound.
Marshall accepted an invitation to play in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl for the first time and battled an opponent it had never faced before, the Colorado State Rams of the Mountain West. The Herd and the Rams had a memorable showdown that could rank among the best of the entire 2017-18 bowl season.
The Herd led it 21-14 at halftime before opening up a 31-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter. But Colorado State’s explosive offense didn’t go down without a fight and cut the Marshall lead down to 31-28 late in the fourth quarter.
However, unlike several games down the stretch of the regular season, Marshall was able to close this game out and walked away with a 31-28 win over the Rams to finish the season at 8-5 overall and New Mexico Bowl Champions.
No matter how many what if’s and missed opportunities were out there surrounding Marshall’s 2017 football season, the Herd still increased its 2016 win total by five games and won its sixth straight bowl win.
Marshall’s sixth straight bowl win dating back to 2009 is the current best active bowl winning streak in the FBS and the win also improved the Herd to 11-2 all-time in bowl games, the highest bowl winning percentage in the FBS.
The 2017 season was a step in the right direction for the program, but with how much talent returns for the 2018 season, expectations will be high for Marshall next season. And while 8-5 and a bowl win is never a bad thing, the fanbase and program as a whole will certainly expect more in 2018.
For a program that prides itself on playing for championships, it may be championship or bust next season for Marshall Thundering Herd football.