Sep 1, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – A half a shutout is better than none … right Chuck Heater?
“It was an important game for us,” said Heater, Marshall’s veteran – but new to the Thundering Herd – defensive coordinator, after a 52-14 season-opening rout of Miami (Ohio) on Saturday night at Edwards Stadium. “A win? Yes. But to handle the adversity the way we handled it … that was good, too.”
The Herd faithful in a crowd of 27,148 wasn’t alone in its hand-wringing over a 14-14 halftime score. The uptempo Marshall offense still was trying to get untracked. The defense was holding its own, however.
And that, Heater said, was what in his mind was “most encouraging.”
In the third quarter, the Herd outgained the RedHawks 214-30, with Marshall matching the Miami offensive output of the first half. Quarterback Rakeem Cato finished with five touchdown passes – matching his career high and one off Byron Leftwich’s stadium record against Ohio in 2001 – as MU ran 94 plays.
Miami never scored again, and the last time a Herd foe punted more times in a game than the visitors’ nine was Oct. 1, 2005 – Marshall’s first Conference USA season – when SMU booted 10 times in its overtime loss at “The Joan.”
“That’s a good thing, good stops,” Heater said. “We were good on third down (Miami was 2-of-13 on third down conversions).
What the Herd partisans at the opener came to see was whether this Heater-guided defense could be a big improvement over the points- and yards-yielding bunch that contributed to last season’s 5-7 disappointment.
Well, Miami managed only 239 yards – and 92 of those came on two first-half pass completions.
“One guy made a great play for them, and the other one was broken coverage,” Heater said. “That happens; that’s football. The (final) score didn’t reflect the game. It was 14-14, a lot of back and forth, and we handled the difficult things.”
The 239 yards were the fewest allowed in Coach Doc Holliday’s 38 games in charge of the Herd program, and the fewest since Ohio got only 123 in the Little Caesars Bowl in December 2009 when Rick Minter was the Herd’s one-game interim coach just a week or so after Holliday’s hiring.
That Bobcats’ team ran only 51 plays in that Motor City postseason game, the last time a Herd foe had fewer snaps than the RedHawks did in the 2013 opener.
However, it wasn’t all about statistics in Heater’s mind.
It was about the mindset of his unit that kept rolling in players, reflecting its newfound depth. It was about how those players handled what could have been the game’s signature play – an 82-yard fumble return for an apparent second-quarter score by strong safety D.J. Hunter that after a replay review was ruled an incomplete RedHawks’ pass.
“We talk about reflecting on the game, and there was a lot of back and forth early on,” Heater said. “D.J. makes a big play, they call it back. I’m waiting to see how we handle it.
“Later, third quarter, we get off the field on third down, making a big play (tackle James Rouse’s solo hit for a minus-5-yard Miami completion) and get a late hit on the quarterback. There are things that happened. They always do. That’s football.
“We learned how to manage it, how to deal with adversity. That didn’t happen last year, it didn’t seem to me. The thing that’s most encouraging to me is we handled the adversity, and we’ve been talking about that.
“The kids have worked so hard and wanted to be different, get a different result from last year, obviously. So, we were challenging them to handle it when things didn’t go well, and they really did a nice job … keep playing, because the offense did struggle for a while.”
Miami managed only 55 yards in the second half, and Heater mentioned some impressive individual play by middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes (eight tackles), and big second-half pass breakups by corner Darryl Roberts and safety A.J. Leggett.
“We kept battling,” the Herd coordinator said. “It wasn’t going their way for a while; it just wasn’t falling for them, which can happen in a game. There are X number of plays, and every play has its own story, and you have a good play and a bad play, and you keep fighting.
“But I think the fact we did that was huge, and really, I’m glad it went that way and it was the type of game it was. It certainly didn’t feel that way in the first half.
“Going back to getting off the field on third down and then the late hit and you have to stay on the field … and we go back on the field and we stopped them. We took a chance (Alex Bazzie’s flag). Hey, those things happen. It’s the game of football.”
The Herd gets a visit next Saturday night from Gardner-Webb. The FCS program opened with a 28-21 win over visiting Furman on Saturday. The Herd, with a win, would have its first 2-0 start since 1999, when new Edwards stadium skybox renter Chad Pennington quarterbacked MU to a 13-0 season and No. 10 national ranking.
Heater accomplished something else in the opener, too. He played plenty of personnel – as he and Holliday said would be the case. Seventeen players played at least one snap on the first two defensive series.
“We were rotating three corners, rotating (two free) safeties right now, plus rotating three ends, four tackles, and we’re playing situational with (six linebackers and a nickel),” Heater said. “The four (tackles) inside, we played situations.
“They’re all good, pretty fresh, but they didn’t have to play 94 plays like Miami did. Defense, if you don’t have enough depth, you can’t get off the field. That happened here last year. We played a lot of guys, and when you hold a team to 70-some yards rushing, you’re doing a good job.”
Heater said that a 14-14 game at halftime was another of those tests for his new defense. Which way would it go?
“We hung in there, just battled strong, resilient,” he said. “I wanted to see what happened that way, and we’re going to have a lot more opportunity to deal with those kind of things, and we will have to deal with it.
“Third down I felt like we were pretty good. That’s been a point of emphasis, getting off the field. I’m happy for them. This was a little reward. We had a good August, but from Day 1 when I got here and met them, they wanted to be different and they’ve shown it. I wanted to help them meld this team together.
“It’s only one game, but it’s a good little reward, and these guys needed that.”