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Herd not sure what to expect from Golden Eagles' defense

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You know the descriptions of Marshall's offense by now: up-tempo, hyper-tempo, uber-tempo, nearly impossible to substitute against, etc.

And these: nearly 400 passing yards per game, an offense largely placed in the quarterback's hands with many run-pass options.

Here is one description you might not consider: unsophisticated. Almost simple.

"They execute a real fast tempo, not a lot of complicated runs and blocking schemes," said Southern Mississippi coach Ellis Johnson. "They'll change up their route packages and formations, but it's really [just] a fast-tempo, quick-hitting passing game and running game."

Shoot, Johnson almost sounded relieved he would face this scheme for the upcoming game, and in several to come. In Huntington, Herd offensive coordinator Bill Legg fully understands.

Legg knows Johnson and his defensive coordinator, Tommy West, have just about seen it all in the Golden Eagles' first six games. Here's the rub: Legg wants to see how the Eagles have handled an offense similar to the Herd's, but hasn't gotten a clear picture.

"The closest thing [to MU's offense] is East Carolina, but that was so early in the season," Legg said. "Boise [State] does some stuff, they're shifting and motioning and they're in and out of every frickin' personnel grouping and every formation, and they never snap the ball from the formation they start in. So you play that differently.

"Louisville, I thought, was going to be the one that was a little bit later then East Carolina, which would have been a lot closer to us. Unfortunately, it was [played in] a torrential downpour, standing water on the field. You could throw it, but there was no way anybody was going to catch it; everybody buckled down and grinded it out, and that's the way the game went."

Certainly, Southern Miss didn't see an up-tempo passing attack last week at Central Florida. So, in preparation for this week, Herd coaches had to punt.

OK, bad choice of verbs for an offensive staff. Rather, they had to adapt.

"So we're a little bit blind," Legg said. "But, they've done a little bit of everything through their first five, six games, so we're practicing against a little bit of everything."

The Thundering Herd (2-4, 1-1) will test that preparation at 7 p.m. EDT at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Miss. The defense of Southern Miss (0-6, 0-2) has had its struggles, much as it has in the other two phases.

First and foremost, here is a stat you wouldn't expect from the Eagles: They are yielding 196.5 rushing yards per game, 95th in the national rankings, and are giving up 4.7 yards per attempt.

Even with the shift away from old-school football under previous coach Larry Fedora, the Eagles' defense has been much stouter, giving up 3.3 yards per attempt and 119 per game in 2011. And you can't blame the game against Nebraska for all the increase - Western Kentucky roughed up Southern Miss for 369 rushing yards.

That went down to 109 against Boise State two weeks ago, in a game where the Broncos scored on six short-field drives in a 40-14 rout. But UCF ran for 272 last week, and pounded it at will in two overtime periods.

Passing defense also has been a liability. Yielding 13 touchdowns and intercepting just three passes, opponents have an efficiency rating of 151.14, which would rank an individual in the top 25 of the category. As for Southern Miss' ranking, that's bottom 10.

But the situation isn't hopeless, and elements of a solid defense are emerging. In the Boise and UCF games, Southern Miss allowed just seven third-down conversions in 25 percent, a stark contrast to 33 of 57 in the first four games.

Inexperience is no small factor, in the struggles and in possible improvement. Most starters are juniors and seniors, but only four are returning starters. One is Jacorius Cotton, the boundary safety expected back after missing last week with an injury.

He tied for the 2011 team lead with "Bandit" end Jamie Collins, the leader of this year's bunch. Collins is the Eagles' top tackler by far, with 48 stops, 10 for loss, and five sacks. He also has broken up three passes.

"They've had a lot of good players in the past. Just add him to the list," Legg said.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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