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Red zone, penalties holding back Herd 'O'

by Rob Peirce

SPORTS WRITER

Bob Pruett doesn't want Curtis Head to kick another field goal for the rest of the year.

Sure, Marshall's coach has confidence in his placekicker. But with the nation's most productive offense in terms of total yards (547 a game) and a Heisman trophy candidate at quarterback, Pruett wants touchdowns every time the Thundering Herd reaches the red zone.

But that, along with penalties, almost cost them the game Saturday at Central Michigan. Marshall reached the red zone four times against the Chippewas. The result was one touchdown, two field goals and a turnover on downs.

"We're kicking more field goals this year than we've ever kicked," Pruett said. "We need to quit doing that. It makes the game close. We don't need to be doing that. We need to be scoring touchdowns, which we're capable of doing."

Marshall has scored 32 touchdowns so far this year. Only two other teams in the top 15 of total offense have fewer. Head ranks tied for 19th in the country in field goals per game, with 1.43. He kicked a career-high three field goals against Central Michigan despite 466 yards of total offense from Byron Leftwich.

"That's a pretty good day for most teams, but that's mediocre for us," right tackle Nate McPeek said. "We can't be kicking field goals all the time. That comes back to bite you."

Pruett's philosophy is it's better to get six points than three but better to get three points than a turnover.

He started Saturday's game in the two-minute offense, but the first two drives resulted in Head field goals of 40 and 35 yards.

Marshall's lone points in the second half came on a 19-yard field goal to bump its lead to 23-12. The drive ended at Central Michigan's 3. The next one was another trip into the red zone, but Leftwich fired incomplete on fourth-and-1 from the 12.

The red zone trend just showed up last week. Penalties have been troubling the Herd all year. They have 60 total flags for 499 yards. But during the last three games, they're averaging 12 penalties for 107 yards.

So far, it hasn't impeded Marshall. But last week came close. Center Jeff Edwards warns if it keeps up, the offense could fall apart piecemeal.

"It totally knocks you out of a rhythm and most of the time, it's stupid things," Edwards said. "If they were aggressive penalties, it would be different."

McPeek admits offensive holding could conceivably be called on every play. It's the 5-yard delay of game and false start penalties which add up. Consider:

n On Marshall's second possession, a delay of game penalty preceded a Leftwich sack and turned second-and-12 at the Central Michigan 13 into third-and-18 from the 19. Head's 35-yard field goal made it 6-0, Herd.

n Three penalties in four snaps late in the fourth quarter put the Herd in serious jeopardy.

Following a Chippewa touchdown to cut the lead to 23-18, the offense got the ball back with 5:15 left. Leftwich started moving the chains with consecutive first-down passes to Denero Marriott and Darius Watts when the flags hit.

Second-and-8 from Central Michigan's 36 became second-and-13 at the 41 on a false start. After a Brandon Carey rush for no gain, Leftwich had the first down on a pass to Marriott. But it was wiped out on a holding call, and the Herd faced third-and-23 from their own 49. A false start pushed them back 5 more yards.

"There's not many plays in our playbook for third-and-28," McPeek said. "It's hard to execute that."

Leftwich did pick up the full 28 on a pass to Watts for the first down. But three plays later, he was intercepted, and the Chippewas had 83 yards and 2:23 separating them from an upset. But luckily, Marshall's defense held to preserve the victory.

"Every time we get penalties, we get it at the wrong time," Leftwich said. "Every big play we were getting, it was called back."

Sports writer Rob Peirce can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at rpeirce@exponent-telegram.com.