BOGACZYK: Herd Defense Cooks Rice, Clinches Title Game Berth
The Word on the Herd-Nov. 15, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Coach Doc Holliday swears that defensive wins championships. On a shivering Saturday, his Marshall football team turned in what was literally the game of a decade while clinching a berth in the Conference USA Championship Game.
Holding Rice to the fewest yards for a Conference USA opponent in the Thundering Herd's 10 seasons in the league, Marshall rolled to a convincing 41-14 triumph over an Owls' team that came to Edwards Stadium with a six-game winning streak.
"This may be the best we've had since I've been here," Holliday said of his defense that limited Rice (6-4, 4-2) to only 180 yards.
No. 21 Marshall (10-0, 6-0) won its 11th straight game as quarterback Rakeem Cato threw for four touchdowns and running back Devon Johnson returned from a knee injury to tractor his way to 199 ground yards, but it was the Herd defense that really won the day before a crowd of 30,680.
It was the fewest yards allowed by the Herd to a major college foe in Holliday's five seasons (FCS member Rhode Island had 175 in an Edwards Stadium loss in September), and the fewest since MU permitted only 123 to Ohio in a 2009 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl victory under interim coach Rick Minter to close the 2009 season.
About an hour after the Herd remained the only major college team with at least 35 points in every game, host FIU (4-7, 3-4) helped Marshall into a second straight C-USA title-game appearance with a 38-28 victory over Middle Tennessee (5-5, 4-2).
So, the Herd has clinched at least a tie for a second consecutive East Division title, owning a two-game division lead over Middle with two games to play. But Marshall has the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to a 49-24 mid-October home win over the Blue Raiders as the Herd hopes for a Dec. 6 title game at "The Joan."
And on a day when three teams ranked between Nos. 19-25 in the College Football Playoff rankings lost (Clemson, Duke, Minnesota), the Herd made a statement to perhaps finally be noticed.
Someone was paying attention. He was on the opposite sideline.
"What a great job Marshall did tonight, Doc and his staff and team," Rice Coach David Bailiff said. "We're a good football team. We came here expecting to win. They outplayed us ...
"And I'll tell you this, too. We had played (Texas) A&M. We had played Notre Dame, and Marshall is right up there with those guys. That's a very good football team, very physical, very explosive on offense. We couldn't stop them. They're solid defensively.
"Marshall is a good football team."
The Herd -- the third Marshall team in history to reach 10-0 (with the unbeaten 1996 and '99 teams) -- now heads to Legion Field next Saturday for a noon (ET) kickoff with UAB (5-5, 3-3), which is coming off an open date. Then it's a Thanksgiving Friday home game against Western Kentucky (5-5, 2-4) to finish the regular season.
In reversing the 2013 C-USA Championship decision at Rice Stadium when the Owls took the game to the Herd, MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said his unit played what he felt was the finest effort in his two seasons with the program.
It started with taking rangy, 6-foot-5 Owl receiver Jordan Taylor out of the picture. Taylor's size and play had hurt the Herd significantly in each of the last two seasons. On Saturday, while Taylor had nine receptions for 88 yards, he was a non-factor.
"Well, we were able to stop the run early," Heater said, "and it became clear in the second quarter they were going to throw the ball to 15 (Taylor), which we probably could have known before we went in there. And then we had some stuff where we were able to go double bracket him. So, that helped us.
"And then we got going to basically take him out of the game. We had to do that, as an impact player, which he is. It started by stopping the run."
Rice managed only 105 yards through three quarters, and by then it was 34-7 on the scoreboard. Heater's defense allowed only 81 ground yards. And the Herd pressured Owl quarterback Driphus Jackson consistently, getting three sacks and six QB hurries.
"It's was a really good game for us," Heater said. "We have a lot of respect for those (Rice) guys and they're capable guys and tough guys ... what they did to us last year (in the title game) I feel good about what our guys did because as a team, we have a high level of respect for them."
"We're a year better. Our front guys are a year more mature. We're pretty salty up front, 10 or 15 pounds bigger, and that all makes a difference. We're bigger and stronger and a little saltier. Defensive line is such a hard position to play.
"No one grows up wanting to be a defensive tackle. It's a hard business. You're up against 600 pounds every day and getting pounded on and guys at some point have to decide if they're going to be a player. And we have some players up there this season."
Senior cornerback Darryl Roberts, who missed the title-game loss last season at Rice, said the Herd defensive success was rooted in executing a plan.
"We wanted to protect the outsides, stop the run, and stop No. 15," Roberts said. "We knew he liked to get the ball. That was basically our game plan. Every third down we executed well and that's why we played the way we did.
"We have good guys up front. Our defensive line gets good push up front. We have fast linebackers running sideline to sideline and we've got good guys coming off the edge. We just cause chaos."
Cato's four-touchdown day through the air not only extended his major-college record streak of consecutive games with a scoring pass to 42. He also surpassed Chad Pennington's 115 career TDs to take the school record at 117 and counting.
Meanwhile, Johnson was his former self after sitting out last week's victory at Southern Miss. His 199-yard day left him one yard shy of being the first Marshall running back to have back-to-back 200-yard days since Ron Darby did that in November 1988 at Western Carolina and Youngstown State.
It was Johnson's eighth 100-yard game this season, a record for MU's major-college days (1953-81 and 1997-present). He also passed College Football Hall of Famer Jackie Hunt, Doug Chapman, Darby and Erik Thomas on the single-season Marshall yardage list to move into sixth place with 1,402 yards (in his nine games).
The Herd won its 13th consecutive home game with success on both sides of the ball. Rice was only 3-of-12 on third down, while MU went 12-of-16. The MU defense was aided, too, as the Herd had a time-of-possession edge of 7:30. The Herd had a 401-yard advantage in total offense.
"You know, you go out there and hope for the best, but you prepare as if it's going to be a dogfight," Marshall defensive end Arnold Blackmon said after getting a win over his hometown team. "And that's how we prepared.
"We were able to get into the backfield, not too deep, but get a yard deep as defensive linemen and create some confusion ... We knew Taylor was a great player and we tried to take him out of the game technique-wise, not so much physically and just kind of give ourselves an opportunity to get around the edge and try to make the corner and get some sacks."
So, was this the Herd's best defensive performance in the junior college transfer's two seasons with the Herd?
"I think we're continuing to get better," Blackmon said, "so I think our best is yet to come."
SEEN `N' HERD: Marshall reached the 500-yard and 40-point level for the 23rd time in the last 36 games, dating to the start of the 2012 season ... Until the 180 yards by Rice, the lowest total offense figure against the Herd in a C-USA game came in Marshall's first season in the league - 186 by Tulane in a 27-26 Marshall victory in 2005 in Mobile, Ala., a game moved from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina ... Herd place-kicker Justin Haig booted five PATs, taking him to 200 for his career. The school record is 2011 by Tim Openlander (1994-96) ... At 42 consecutive games with a TD pass, Cato trails only the Division II record of 46 games by Mike Reilly of Central Washington (2005-08) ... Herd slot receiver Tommy Shuler had eight receptions, moving him to 277 for his career and past Darius Watts (272) and into second place in MU career catches. The school record belongs to Josh Davis at 306 receptions ... Tight end Eric Frohnapfel's 107 receiving yards was a career high, and his six catches mated his career best (at West Virginia in 2012) ... True freshman Hyleck Foster's 25-yard scoring catch from Cato was Foster's first college TD, and he became the 15th Herd player to reach the end zone this season ... Linebacker Jermaine Holmes led all Herd tacklers with nine ... Rice had 81 rush yards, the ninth time in the last two seasons that Marshall has held a foe below 100 ground yards.