Marshall defense turns it around
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall coach Doc Holliday was effusive in his praise of the Thundering Herd defense after Saturday's 34-10 Conference USA - and homecoming - win over the University of Texas-San Antonio.
"I can't give enough credit to our defensive staff and players," Holliday said.
Then, almost as an afterthought, he continued.
"And to our offensive team."
All the Thundering Herd offense did was roll up 404 yards. Quarterback Rakeem Cato was 22-of-34 passing for 279 yards with no interceptions.
Yes, though, the MU defense stole the spotlight and should have taken a bow.
It was deserved. Last year, Marshall's unit was so bad it finished 123rd out of 124 FBS football teams in scoring. It finished No. 103 in total defense.
The Herd entered this game No. 11 nationally in total defense - and improved on the heretofore statistics. Before the game, MU was tied with Penn State, allowing an average of 285 yards per game. Against UTSA, it allowed 254.
The Herd harassed the Roadrunners like Wile E. Coyote on Red Bull early and often at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
There were two defensive takeaways on interceptions - both tipped, no less - on UTSA's first two series, and almost a third on the third series. Alex Bazzie, who tipped the first pass into the hands of Evan McKelvy, came off the end in that third series and almost made it back-to-back-to-back.
In the end, Marshall had 13 tackles for loss, three interceptions, seven pass breakups and nine quarterback hurries.
"They're very fast," said Roadrunners coach Larry Coker. "Their defensive front was fast. I think that was something we hadn't seen. They also had good size on the front."
He went on to mention MU's athleticism. UTSA hadn't been shut down - with the exception of Arizona - by any other team this season, including at Oklahoma State, although some of that scoring came late.
On Saturday, UTSA had just 97 yards rushing and 157 passing.
The question is, how did this turnaround occur?
"A lot of new players," said Thundering Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. "We had an influx. We had three or four that became eligible. We have three or four that we recruited in. We have a good group of senior guys, who are playing their best football.
"I think it's a combination of the infusion of new players and our seniors playing their best. It's given us a chance to be better."
They've taken that chance, and it's given MU a spark.
"You have confidence they can make plays and get off the field," said the assistant. "If you have no playmakers, you can't get off the field."
On Saturday, the 28,837 in attendance saw Heater take advantage of his playmakers. He had some freedom in regard to schemes.
"We moved our [defensive] front a lot," Heater said. "We had that little thing where we didn't get lined up. We were moving around. That can be disruptive if you worked on it, and they hadn't."
"We also had a couple things with our corners, putting them in positions to help with the run game."
The former scheme Heater spoke of involved what some call a stand-up defensive front. (Ex-Nitro High coach Scott Tinsley would be proud.) Heater used the stunt in both of his previous stops at Florida and Temple.
Anyway, on a day in which a new (although very, very similar) Marco was introduced, Marshall showed it also has a new defense.
"Coach Heater and his staff did a great job," said Holliday. "The defense just keeps getting better and better."
He pointed to the packages Heater put in during the Herd's off week. He said the way the Roadrunners play offense allowed the defensive coordinator to play an extra linebacker - a strong-side one - instead of a nickel back. That helped in a big way.
All freshman Sam linebacker Stefan Houston did on Saturday was lead the team in tackles with eight, including a half sack and 11/2 tackles for loss.
"They put me in the right position," Houston said. "The coaches put everybody in the right position."
He offered his theory on the Herd's defensive turnaround.
"We've been more athletic and more conditioned than the other teams," Houston said. "We just set the edge and go. We're trying to send a lot of messages. To a lot of teams."
With a little help from that offense.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.