Homecoming Herd Defense Silences Roadrunners


Marshall's Evan McKelvey

Marshall's Evan McKelvey

Oct. 5, 2013

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By JACK BOGACZYK

HERDZONE.COM COLUMNIST

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Beep! Beep!

On a football Homecoming afternoon on which Marshall's latest mascot Marco was introduced, there wasn't much noise from the Roadrunners of UTSA.

The hoof beats of the Herd's retooled defense just kept thundering through the visitors from San Antonio, as Marshall opened Conference USA play with a 34-10 triumph on Saturday.

UTSA (2-4, 1-1) came into Edwards Stadium averaging 431 yards per game. The Roadrunners managed only 254 against Coach Doc Holliday's confident team (3-2, 1-0), which ravaged quarterback Eric Soza and Co. with 3 interceptions, 3 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 9 QB hurries and 7 pass breakups.

There have been routs of Miami (Ohio) and Gardner-Webb and frustrating losses at Ohio and in three overtimes at Virginia Tech for the Herd, and Marshall's aggressive man-based scheme has been impressive prior to league play ... however, perhaps no more so than it was against UTSA before a crowd of 28,837.

Was this Homecoming the Herd's best defensive performance of 2013?

"Coming in, if you had told me we'd do that to that team, I'd have said `absolutely (it was),'" Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said. "And they were a good offense against everybody we saw, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Houston.

"They didn't have No. 1 (top UTSA receiver Kam Jones did not make the trip) and I think that had an impact, and also the long trip here and all the things that go into it. Some days you aren't quite as good as you were the week before.

"We had an enormous amount of respect for them, their scheme and how they executed it, and the quarterback and the skill guys. I thought the receivers they have are the best we've seen as a group.

"All that being said, and yet, we had a really good day."

Marshall made interceptions on UTSA's first two series and the Herd led 10-0 after only eight minutes.

"I think after that we're in their heads a little bit," said Herd true freshman Stefan Houston, who moved from an inside spot to sam linebacker and got significant playing time. "Still, anything can happen in a football game. It was still early, so we just tried to stay level-headed, keep the pressure on, make plays, do what we do."

The first pick, by Evan McKelvey, was the third by an MU linebacker this season. The second, by end Ra'Shawde Myers off a tipped ball, was the first pick by a Herd defensive lineman since end Ryland Wilson got a pair in November 2007 (thrown by UCF's Kyle Israel and Case Keenum of Houston).

Houston emerged with opportunity after his recovery from a high ankle sprain. He led Marshall with eight tackles. Five of MU's top eight tacklers - Houston, McKelvey, Neville Hewitt, Darryl Roberts, Taj Letman) had something in common that is telling about Heater's defense.

They weren't in Marshall uniforms last season for one reason or another.

"We're playing a lot of people because those guys have ability," Heater said. "We have 13 players who are playing and contributing on defense right now who didn't play here last year on defense for one reason or another, and they're all playing.

"And we have some seniors who are playing good football, showing the way. When you have 13 new players, coming from different places, who can make plays, it helps. In college football, if you can't make a play, you can't get off the field today, the offenses are so good.

"At some point, you've got to make a play, stop `em on third-and-1, get an interception; if you don't, you're going to give up points ... We're not there yet, but we're making progress."

The Herd has nine interceptions (by seven players) in five games, already tying the 2012 team total in a 5-7 finish. Safety A.J. Leggett has two - and he's another player who was out last season (after shoulder surgery).

It also helps that the Herd has been dealing from a field position advantage. Walk-on freshman Amoreto Curraj has 21 touchbacks on kickoffs in five games - six against UTSA, after Holliday's first three Marshall clubs (combined) managed only nine.

"They (UTSA) won the toss and took the ball, but I think it was the turnovers," Holliday said. "The field position on kickoff has been tremendous. (Curraj) is one of the top five guys in the country in touchbacks. The field position the defense has started with has been huge. We got two turnovers back-to-back. We had two interceptions in the first half that gave us great field advantage."

For all of the numbers, the thing Heater said he liked most was holding UTSA to a second-quarter field goal on a drive that started at the Herd 11 after a Rakeem Cato lost fumble.

"I just felt like the way they fought on that red zone turnover situation, played six plays down there stopped them, I thought that was a tremendous accomplishment," Heater said. "I felt like we were pretty comfortable.

"I mean, they threw the ball, but we were pretty comfortable, nobody panicked, we just kept playing and developed a certain level of confidence. That's important, because I think you're going to get a lot of punches and you've got to keep playing and go on to the next play."

The Herd defensive front dominated the Roadrunners' offensive line, pressuring Soza throughout. Heater said a good reason for that is even without injured senior end Jeremiah Taylor, Marshall has a front-four plethora of personnel.

"We can roll guys, and that's huge for us, because we can play guys 30-35 plays as opposed to 70 or 80," Heater said. "If you have to play that many, you can't play well. You just can't. So, they're getting into that rotation. Those guys like (Arnold) Blackmon and (Gary) Thompson, (Josh) Brown are rolling in, and we rotate guys inside (James Rouse, Brandon Sparrow, Jarquez Samuel, Steve Dillon, Brown). Sparrow was back today (from an ankle sprain), and that's huge for us to keep rolling in those guys."

And while the Marshall offense perhaps wasn't its so-often eye-popping self, Holliday really liked his team's 6-for-6 in the red zone and 10-of-18 on third down conversions.

Although UTSA did get quality pressure on Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato - the Herd's five sacks allowed matched the most times Cato has been taken down (a home loss to Virginia Tech in 2011), he still completed 22-of-32 for two scores, extending his consecutive games with a TD toss to 23 - second among active FBS quarterbacks.

Cato also moved to third on Marshall's career list with 697 completions, training on Chad Pennington (1,026) and Byron Leftwich (939). He moved to fourth in attempts with 1,068 (training Pennington, Leftwich and Michael Payton).

"Offensively, I've said at times I don't think we are statistically better than last year, but we can be a better offense," said Holliday, who was pleased with his team's score-ending drive of 5:58, the longest in clock time this season. "We slowed down in the second half and worked some clock. We ran the ball and were able to pick up first downs and stick that last touchdown in ... which was good to see."

Marshall's 17-0 first-quarter lead was the most points scored by a Herd team in the opening period since the Herd led Tulane 21-0 at Edwards Stadium on Nov. 4, 2006 - a 42-21 MU victory.

The Herd now heads on the road for two straight, visit Florida Atlantic (2-4, 1-3) next Saturday, then playing at Middle Tennessee (3-3, 1-1) in a Thursday night national Fox Sports 1 telecast game on Oct. 24.