BOGACZYK: Points Aplenty, but Herd Defense Has Great Zip, too
The Word on the Herd-Sept. 20, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
AKRON, Ohio – Four times 40 equaled 1938 as Marshall football finished non-conference play with an exclamation point on a sunny and brisk Saturday afternoon at InfoCision Stadium.
With a 48-17 trouncing of host Akron, the Thundering Herd (4-0) headed into an open week with at least 40 points in its first four games of a season since ’38, when Coach Cam Henderson’s team was blanking Carson-Newman, Ohio Wesleyan, Miami of Ohio and Oklahoma City in home games while scoring 213 points.
MU Coach Doc Holliday’s offense was impressive again, piling up 526 yards, including 284 on the ground with a pair of 100-yard ground gainers in Remi Watson (a career-high 124, including an 80-yard touchdown run) and Devon Johnson (103) – the fourth and fifth 100-yard ground games for MU this season.
The Herd had 18 plays of more than 10 yards, the last of those a first career TD by freshman Brandon Byrd on a 9-yard run with 4:07 to go.
But it’s about time the Herd defense got some credit, after another rout, this time before a crowd of 13,357 and despite a Marshall record-tying 20 penalties.
Through the non-league schedule, the Herd has allowed only two field goals in first-half play, outscoring foes 103-6. It has taken those opponents – Miami (Ohio), Rhode Island, Ohio and Akron -- 33:07, 47:57, 38:27 and 51:57, in order to get into the end zone.
"Our defense has played great," Holliday said. "(Defensive coordinator) Chuck Heater challenged them, and a lot of what we’ve given up has been late without the top (players) in there. What we did today was what they’ve been doing."
The Zips (1-2) were a puny 2-of-13 on third down conversions and 0-for-2 on fourth down. Marshall forced two turnovers and made three first-half stops inside the Herd 10. One became an Akron field goal. The other two were an end-zone interception by safety A.J. Leggett and a fumble recovery at the MU 9 by safety Tiquan Lang after a jarring hit by tackle James Rouse.
"Those plays were huge," Holliday said. "Akron got down in the score zone and we came up with stops. It’s been that way all year."
In its three games against FBS foes – all from the Herd’s former Mid-American Conference home – Marshall’s defense has made seven stands with stops inside its 10. The results were three field goals, a missed field goal, two turnovers and a fourth-down stop.
"I don’t really know," Lang said, smiling, when asked about the Herd’s performance with its back to the end zone. "The D-line, the D-line, that’s all I can say."
With the Herd heading to Old Dominion (3-1, 1-0 Conference USA) to begin league play on Oct. 4, Marshall is allowing 16.2 points. Heater’s goal for the Herd is under 18 in every game. He wants foes held to a 33 percent third-down rate. The Herd is at an impressive 25.4 (16-for-63).
"Coach Holliday and Coach Heater challenged us this season," said Leggett, who returned with verve after missing two games with concussion-like symptoms. "They said the defense needed to win games. It didn’t matter how the offense played. We had to play well enough to win games."
That’s certainly been the case.
Last season – the veteran Heater’s first as the MU coordinator – Marshall had the most-improved scoring defense in major college football since 1997 to ‘98 (Central Michigan). But the inconsistency showed, too, as Herd foes had 34 or more points in four games, including three losses in a 10-4 season.
"No. 1, that group is extremely well-coached," Holliday said. "Chuck and his staff do a great job with them. We talk all the time that we’ve got to bring our defense every day. If you’re a great defense, you never change. Yes, you’ll have your ups and downs, but you go out and play.
"They haven’t had a touchdown scored on them in the first half and only one rushing touchdown this season, and that was against some guys down the pike (depth chart). We’ve got to continue to do what we did today. If we’re going to play for championships, we’ve got to play great defense.
"The biggest difference, I think, is experience. We had 14 guys who played on the defense a year ago who weren’t there (in 2012), and they’re all back. You bring a lot of experience, and the terminology and teaching is in Year 2 under Chuck now. The philosophy, they’ve heard it going on two years now. They’re more comfortable with Chuck and he’s more comfortable with them. That’s big."
The 65 points allowed by the Herd is the fewest for Marshall through four games since the unbeaten (13-0) club of 1999, which gave up only 29 in wins over Clemson, Liberty, Bowling Green and Temple.
"Coach Heater is always on us about defense winning games," said Leggett, who got his second pick of the season – as did Lang. "As long as the offense keeps putting up 40 points a game, there’s no reason why we should lose."
Holliday also pointed to the four Akron turnovers – including fumbles forced by Rouse and end Arnold Blackmon – as major factors. His five MU teams are 20-4 when they win the turnover margin.
MU had two sacks (Ra’shawde Myers, Joe Massaquoi), six tackles for losses, fumble recoveries by Lang and true freshman cornerback Antavis Rowe. Leggett and corners Darryl Roberts and Rodney Allen had two pass breakups apiece.
Twenty-two Herd defensive players had at least one tackle in the win.
"Like I’ve said before, defense wins championships," Holliday said. "I’ve never been anywhere where we won a championship without a great defense. I really, really like where our defense is now. But Chuck knows and our kids also know we’ve got to continue to get better."
SEEN ‘N’ HERD: The Herd left non-league play behind as the only FBS team with at least 40 points in each of its first four games this season. Oregon, playing at Washington State in a late Saturday night game, is the only other school that could match the Herd with that 2014 feat through the weekend … Left offensive tackle Sebastian Johansson (ankle) missed his second straight start, and graduate senior Trevor Mendelson got his second straight start at the spot … The Herd’s 20 penalties – tied the school mark set way back in 1931 in a loss at Wittenberg. MU was docked 188 yards, which snapped the previous Herd high of 180 in a 1969 defeat at Morehead State … Backup running back Steward Butler didn’t play, Holliday saying he "didn’t like the way he practiced" in the past week … Quarterback Rakeem Cato, besides running for two scores, was 17-of-31 for 210 yards passing, including a 24-yard TD pass to Angelo Jean-Louis late in the first quarter. That took Cato to 36 straight games with a TD pass, two away from the major college record of 38 set by Russell Wilson at N.C. State and Wisconsin from 2009-11 … Cato now has 955 career completions, passing Byron Leftwich (939) for No. 2 in Herd annals. Chad Pennington’s 1,026 in 1995 and ’97-99 is the school record … When Cato reached 1,000 passing yards for the season in the first quarter, he joined Pennington as the only passers in Herd history with four seasons of at least 1,000 yards … Senior Justin Haig made six PATs, moving him to 161 for his career and past former Memphis kicker Stephen Gostkowski for No. 5 in C-USA history … Slot receiver Tommy Shuler had six catches for 63 yards and climbed past tight end Cody Slate (2,619) for the eighth spot in career receiving yards in a Herd uniform. Shuler is at 2,672, and 74 yards behind College Football Hall of Famer Troy Brown at 2,746 for No. 7 … Shuler (247 receptions) is two behind another College Football Hall of Famer, Mike Barber (249) for third place on the Marshall career list … Watson’s 80-yard TD run in the second quarter is the longest run for a Marshall player since Darius Marshall went for an 80-yard TD in a 2009 home win over Bowling Green … The Herd has 80 scrimmage plays of 10 or more yards this season … In the last 30 games (dating to the 2012 opener), offensive coordinator Bill Legg’s attack has 18 games of 500 or more yards total offense and 218 games with 40 or more points … Marshall has won 12 of its last 14 games and this is the first time in Holliday’s five seasons that the Herd has been better than .500 through four games.