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MARSHALL STILL BRINGS THE THUNDER

They're still the 2-foot putt of the Mid-American Conference, the sure thing.

You can always count on Marshall to win, no problem.

No, the Thundering Herd (3-3, 3-0 MAC) is not as dominant as it was during the Chad Pennington-Byron Leftwich days, but Marshall has not lost to an East Division opponent at home since joining the league in 1997, a streak of 19 games.

Unless the University at Buffalo (1-6, 1-4) plays a near-perfect game, which happens as often as Charlie Brown kicks the football, the Herd's streak will reach 20 when the teams match up this afternoon in Huntington, W. Va. (4:30 p.m., Radio 550, TV Empire).

"All of us would consider this to be one of the elite teams in the MAC," UB coach Jim Hofher said. "Marshall has been in the conference seven seasons and they won the MAC East six times. Last year was the first time they did not win the MAC East. They are certainly among the gold standard . . . in the MAC and once again they have an outstanding football team."

Albeit a team that's hard to figure. It opened with three consecutive losses. In its last three wins, Marshall hasn't exactly throttled anyone. The defense, led by All-American defensive end Jonathan Goddard (nine sacks), is much-improved over last year. The offense, which for years prided itself on a strong, vertical passing game, takes fewer risks. It has a massive offensive line -- the Herd averages 318 pounds -- but it is slow and prone to yielding sacks.

Marshall, playing its final season in the MAC before leaving for Conference USA, lost to Troy State in its season opener, 17-15, but looked respectable in road losses to then-No. 9 Ohio State (24-21) and then No. 3 Georgia (13-3). The Buckeyes, who have since proven to be vastly overrated, won on a 55-yard field goal as time expired. Then the Herd put together consecutive wins over defending league champion Miami (33-25), Ohio University (16-13) and Kent State (27-17) leading up to UB, which has lost its last two.

"It clearly shows they have ability," Hofher said. "They hung with the so-called big boys, but you have to say Marshall has been a big boy for many years, so it's not a surprise to me that they can go to Ohio Stadium and compete hard and go to Sanford Stadium (Georgia) and compete hard."

The Herd is in the midst of a quarterback controversy as well. Senior Stan Hill is the starter, but senior Graham Gochneaur will see time if he's healthy enough to play after recovering from a shoulder injury. Marshall coach Bob Pruett said Gochneaur, who started eight games last season in place of the injured Hill, has earned the right to play more.

"He's practiced extremely hard and I expect him when he goes into the ballgame to play good," Pruett said.

"We're facing two very capable quarterbacks," UB junior defensive end Phil Jacques said. "They get the ball to their receivers and their receivers are obviously excellent receivers in the MAC, so we're going to have to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback."

Rotating quarterbacks isn't an issue for Hofher. The starter on the Bulls' two-deep is junior P.J. Piskorik, but that could change prior to kickoff. Redshirt freshman Chris Moore, who like Gochneaur is from Highland Village, Texas, is listed No. 2 on the depth chart. But Datwan Hemingway practiced this week after missing last week's game against Miami with a shoulder injury. If Hemingway is healthy, the true freshman from Albany will play.

Piskorik started last week after serving a two-game academic suspension. Hofher said he had a better practice week than Moore, who started against Central Florida and Akron. There are concerns about Moore's arm strength, accuracy and his ability to drive the offense consistently at this stage of his career, although he holds promise. Hofher has started three quarterbacks -- Moore, Piskorik and fifth-year senior Randall Secky -- and four have taken snaps.

Questions at quarterback have contributed to the Bulls ranking 12th in total offense in the MAC.

"P.J. had a great week of practice and preparation last week, in our estimation," Hofher said. "He had as good a week perhaps he has had if not this season maybe in any other point of his playing career. We need someone to go out and do that again, whether it's him or somebody else."

UB sophomore strong safety Ryan Sherwood-Ericsson could miss the rest of the season with a bulging disk in his back. Sherwood-Ericsson was coming off one of the best games of his career against Miami (Ohio) with 11 tackles, two for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble. He will be replaced by junior strong safety Sherwan Saaty or true freshman free safety Jesse Imes.
e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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