April 1, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- When Marshall’s first football season with veteran defensive coordinator Chuck Heater yielded the nation’s most improved scoring defense, it was a significant step for Coach Doc Holliday’s program.
Just how significant? Well, there are numbers besides the Thundering Herd’s record rise – 5-7 to 10-4 and a Conference USA divisional title and Military Bowl victory – to underscore the point.
Marshall’s scoring defense went from 43.1 points per game in 2012 to 22.9 per game last season, rising from a ranking of No. 123 (second last in FBS) to a tie for No. 31. That 20.2-point improvement was impressive.
Wanting to gauge where that stood, I started checking back through NCAA season statistics in major college football, comparing teams’ scoring defense from one season to the following one.
It turns out the Herd’s 20.2-point hike from 2012 to ’13 stood the test of time. And the last time a team matched or exceeded that improvement was in a league with Marshall.
It was 16 years ago in the Mid-American Conference, when from 1997 to ’98, Central Michigan had a 20.5-point improvement in scoring defense, dropping from 43.5 point per game to 23.0 (and rising from No. 108 to No. 43 in what was then known as Division I-A).
Now, with the Herd in Week 2 of spring drills, there’s another accomplishment on which to build.
Heater, who went through stats and rankings this past offseason to build some goals and more for his 2014 defense, isn’t always a numbers guy. But the most-improved status in 16 years gave him a reference point for his second Herd season.
“It was good (22.9),” Heater said, “but we can be better. If we’re going to be a dominant defense, we have to take the next step.”
Scoring defense is the bottom line for Heater. He said he uses C-USA as a basis for the goal for his team because it’s the Herd’s home league. Entering 2013, the top C-USA scoring defense from 2012 was UCF, in its last year in the league, at 22.1 points. So, the Herd’s 2013 goal was one point better, 21.
“We didn’t quite get there, 22.9,” Heater said. “But last season, the best scoring defense was 17.8 (North Texas), so that will be our goal there in 2014 – raising the bar a bit. North Texas was a top-10 scoring defense (No. 8). We want to be a top-10 defense. If you’re in the top 10, you’re a good defense.”
Six Herd opponents topped the 22.9 average in 14 games in 2013. Heater wants his unit to reach the point where it shouldn’t matter whether Marshall’s potent offense scores 40 or 20 for Holliday’s team to win.
“The next step for us is to become a dominant defense,” Heater said before spring practice opened last week. “You’re not really going to win – the way we think we’re capable of winning – until the defense can play every Saturday in a dominant fashion, regardless of what happens, regardless of turnovers or whether there are kicking game errors.
“All of that shouldn’t matter. You’ve got to find a way to go out there and keep the opposing team out of the end zone. And at times we did a good job with that, but I think the next step for us is to become a dominant defense. And if we do that, we’re going to win, win a lot of games, win some because of the defense. That’s my challenge to them, that we take a step forward.”
The Herd defense lost four starters in linemen Alex Bazzie, Brandon Sparrow and Jeremiah Taylor (out most of 2013) and cornerback Monterius Lovett. But the returning cast is strong and deep at most positions, giving Heater hope the heightened goal in limiting scoring can be met.
How does a team improve by 20 points per game in scoring defense?
Well, Holliday made a change in coordinators (from Chris Rippon to Heater), and more than a few players who were sidelined by injury and NCAA initial qualifying standards in 2012 were available in 2013. But there’s more to it.
“You’ve got to tackle well, and that usually speaks to whether you have athletes who are talented enough to do that,” Heater said. “Obviously, the more players like that you have, the better you can be. I think we’ve got good enough players and we work on tackling, but then everybody works on tackling.
“To me, it’s important to try to get it as a mindset. When the ball gets down there, you’re trying to find a way to keep them out of the end zone or to (force the opponent) into a field goal as opposed to a touchdown. In the end, it’s player-driven. You get players good enough to make plays, to get you off the field.”
Heater, a former Michigan running back on his 12th major college coaching stop, went indoors for an analogy.
“I watch basketball, and it (his point) is kind of like that,” Heater said. “In football, it’s never talked about this way, but it’s true. If a defense is good enough to play and keeps you in the game when you can’t make buckets, it can keep you in the game when things aren’t going your way at one end of the floor.
“You need players who can make plays in critical situations. The right plays change momentum. Football is like that, but it’s not talked about like that. But my mind is like that. Can guys step up and make plays? That’s how you change momentum. If you just let things happen, they happen.”
Holliday has repeatedly cited the Herd’s improved tackling in 2014 as a key to success. The coaching staff recorded only 115 missed tackles in 14 games, an 8.2 average. The per-game goal by Heater and Holliday is a single-digit number.
Marshall accomplished that in 11 of 14 games, including the last seven.
“Two other key things are important -- getting off the field on third down, and rush defense,” Heater said. “Our goal in rush defense is 3.0 yards per play in a game. We need 35 percent efficiency on third down. If you can stop ‘em six of nine times on third down or get a turnover, that’s good enough to win, or should be.
“The 3.0 per rush or less is a good number. Tackling, single digits, but getting off the field is the ultimate goal. We use those numbers as a starting point.”
The Herd achieved the 3.0-per-rush number in only five of 14 games last season, but the season average of 3.71 yards ranked 27th among 125 FBS teams. Only four teams had season averages of 3.0 or better (Louisville, Utah State and Rose Bowl foes Michigan State and Stanford)
Marshall achieved its season goal on third-down defense, at 33.6 percent, slightly better than the 35 percent Heater wants. The Herd held six foes under 33 percent and three others below 39 percent. The only teams with 50 percent or better conversion rate against Marshall were Ohio, Middle Tennessee and Rice – three of MU’s four losses.
Asked if he was surprised at the 20.2-point improvement in scoring defense, Heater shrugged.
“Well, it was so inflated on the other side (43.1 points in 2012),” he said. “If the number (of points allowed per game) goes high enough, you could go to 60, get a 40 and improve by 20.
“It’s unfortunate that number was so large before we got here, but 22.9 is a good number. Still, if we had been better, we’d have won more games. If we give that up we win at Middle, at Ohio. Those are games we lost.
“You use indicators, and if you’re winning, those sort of things are indicators until we play dominant defense, until we can win every Saturday regardless of what our offense does. If you don’t, maybe you lose because you’re not making the shots, like in basketball.
“If you play dominant defense, you don’t have to worry about missed shots.”