Editor's note: This is the first part of a series previewing Marshall University football opponents for the 2019 season.
By GRANT TRAYLOR
HUNTINGTON - Virginia Military Institute was not a good football team in the 2018 season.
One look at the Keydets' 1-10 record offers insight to that knowledge. However, VMI was also not as bad as that record indicated with several losses of 10 points or less. As head coach Scott Wachenheim continues to improve the program, the next step is getting wins out of those close games in the fourth quarter.
Winning isn't exactly something the Keydets are accustomed to doing, however. The lone victory in 2018 - a 20-11 win over Tusculum University - ended a 25-game losing streak that dated back to a 37-7 win over East Tennessee State University on Oct. 8, 2016.
It wasn't that the Keydets lacked opportunities, either.
VMI had five of six losses - all in Southern Conference play - come by 10 points or less prior to getting that initial win over Tusculum, meaning the Keydets were improving, but still unsure of how to finish games.
Two of the losses (Western Carolina, The Citadel) were by two points after failed two-point conversions following scores in the final minute of play while another defeat (ETSU) came when the Keydets were shut out in the fourth quarter despite having four drives go into ETSU territory.
So what exactly does that mean for the future?
Simple. There is plenty of room for growth. However, there is also plenty of reason for optimism from head coach Scott Wachenheim as well.
Quarterback Reece Udinski returns after a successful season when he took control of the Air Raid offense of the Keydets and threw for 3,082 yards and 20 touchdowns.
One major area where Udinski needs to grow, however, is taking care of the football. His 16 interceptions, which was second-most in FCS, proved costly for the Keydets, especially in late-game situations.
Udinski will benefit from the return of several top targets he built chemistry with last season.
The leader of that group is junior Kris Thornton, who caught 87 passes for 1,003 yards in 2018. While Thornton was the leading receiver, it was wide-out Javeon Lara, a senior-to-be, who found the end zone the most, catching 53 passes for 825 yards and seven scores. The Keydets added a third weapon, as well, with Jakob Herres emerging in his first year for 27 catches and 437 yards with five scores as a versatile target who can play tight end or receiver. Herres went over 100 yards receiving and caught a touchdown in each of the final two games of the season.
That offensive surge is crucial for a team that struggled to stop the opposition in 2018. In 11 games, VMI's opponents scored at least 48 points on seven occasions and there were only two games - the win over Tusculum and the loss to ETSU - when the opponents didn't eclipse 30 points.
The team's top two tacklers return in defensive back A.J. Smith and linebacker Elliott Brewster - each of which had 90 tackles on the season in 2018.
Defensive back Collin Loftis is another player who could step into a bigger spotlight after grabbing three interceptions.
The road does not start easy for the Keydets with a trip to Huntington to take on Marshall on Aug. 31. However, they return home the next week to take on Mars Hill University - a NCAA Division II school - before a trip to East Tennessee State in week three.
For Wachenheim, the mission is simple: improve on difficulties last season and continue to build the program.
At the forefront of that mission is finishing games in the fourth quarter, which largely falls on the shoulders of Udinski.
Marshall's Aug. 31 matchup with VMI will be the first between the teams since 1996 in the Thundering Herd's last season as a member of the Southern Conference.