Sep 8, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – It’s been a long time comin’ for Marshall football.
You could say that in multiples on Saturday night at Edwards Stadium.
With a 55-0 rout of FCS visitor Gardner-Webb, the Thundering Herd got what none among the last eight Marshall teams couldn’t accomplish.
Yes, the Herd scored more than 50 points for a second straight game, but for that second date in a row, it was the re-schemed and deeper defense that made the biggest difference.
Marshall hadn’t scored at least 50 in back-to-back games since its return to major college football in 1997. The last time it happened was the previous season, when the Herd took first-round and quarterfinal NCAA Division I-AA playoff games over Delaware (59-14) and Furman (54-0), respectively.
Meanwhile, the Herd hadn’t pitched a shutout in 111 games, dating to a 28-0 triumph over Ohio in the 2003 finale, finishing an 8-4 season that – undeservedly – went bowl-less.
How long ago was that?
Marshall coach Doc Holliday was the recruiting coordinator and receivers coach at N.C. State with a Tangerine Bowl team – three jobs ago. The Herd’s first-year defensive coordinator, Chuck Heater, was in his last season at Washington. He’s been at Utah, Florida and Temple since then.
And Marshall fifth-year cornerback Monterius “Pacman” Lovett – he returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, the Herd’s second pick-six in two games – was in the eighth grade.
“Never,” Lovett replied when asked when was the last time he ran 70 yards, much less that distance to score. “I finally got my first one … and I almost tripped there at the last.”
Not much else tripped up the Herd (2-0), which goes to rival Ohio (1-1) next Saturday night for the “Battle for the Bell” rivalry game as one of only two remaining unbeaten teams (with East Carolina) in Conference USA.
The Bobcats upended new C-USA member North Texas, 27-21, on Saturday night at Peden Stadium.
Want a couple more numbers to show how well the Herd defense has played?
Marshall leads C-USA in total defense, allowing 211.5 yards per game … almost 130 yards per game more than the next-best, Tulsa (341.0).
“Every week, we’re going to come out and play hard, no matter who we’re playing,” Marshall sophomore strong safety D.J. Hunter said. “Anybody can get beat -- a lot of people saw that last week – on any given day. If you come out and play hard no matter who you play, chances are it won’t happen.”
The weeklong pregame mantra among the Herd referenced the eight FBS teams that lost to FCS members on the season’s opening weekend. It happened three more times this weekend (to UMass, Western Michigan and Georgia State).
“We talked all week about (former) I-AA teams, about eight teams out there that went out and got upset and we wanted to make sure that wasn’t us,” Holliday said. “Our prep all week was great. I thought Tuesday and Wednesday, the game was won during the week, as far as practice goes. We practiced extremely well and I think it showed there early.”
Marshall ran only 74 plays, managing and massaging the tempo more than last season and last week in its 52-14 rout of Miami (Ohio). That was only 10 more snaps than G-W had, but the Herd piled up 509 yards to 184 for the visitors.
Gardner-Webb averaged only 2.9 yards per play, but it wasn’t about the average, Heater said.
“The difference (from the opener) was the fact we had some turnovers (six), had some sacks (six), tackles for loss (eight),” Heater said. “Last week we didn’t generate that (one turnover, one sack), and that really helps, those impact plays.
“It was good to see. We need those as we go on. We have a focus on that, realize impact plays can make a difference in games. When we add those up, we’ll find out we had quite a few of those tonight, which is great.”
Lovett, redshirt freshman free safety A.J. Leggett and backup corner Andre Scott had picks. Defensive ends Alex Bazzie, Gary Thompson and nickel Corey Tindal recovered fumbles. The Herd had forced as many turnovers only once in its eight-plus seasons in C-USA (2011, in a home win over Southern Miss).
“We got a lot of pressure on the quarterback (six hurries),” Heater said. “We had him running around a lot, which is what you want.”
Heater said the only defensive disappointment was the loss of senior tackle Brandon Sparrow to an ankle injury.
The improved depth at the two inside spots up front – count James Rouse, Steve Dillon, Jarquez Samuel and Josh Brown -- made Sparrow’s potential absence a bit less of an issue.
“It’s football,” Heater said. “Two games and we’ve got a guy down, but that’s why we’ve got a lot of guys getting good reps.”
Lovett’s 70-yard interception return to score in the second quarter – it was 34-0 at halftime and many in the crowd of 26,317 headed to the parking lots to resume tailgating – followed linebacker Raheem Waiters’ 27-yard pick-six in the opener a week earlier.
It’s the first time since 2006 that Marshall has had two interception returns for touchdowns in the same season. C.J. Spillman – now starting with the San Francisco 49ers – and Zearrick Mathews did it then.
Lovett gave some credit to Hunter, who forced the Bulldog receiver off his route before Lovett jumped in for the interception.
“Leggett had good play on his pick,” Hunter said. “The defense played good as a whole. Pacman made a good play, too. I chased him all the way to the end zone. I was so happy, it was almost like I did it.”
“We’re so much better because we’ve got depth now, and we’ve got a great coaching staff on defense, Coach Heater, Coach (J.C.) Price, Coach (Sean) Cronin, Coach (Adam) Fuller. They’re really together, really special.”
Holliday called the shutout “another thing we can build on.” And when reminded that Marshall is 2-0 for the first time since senior Chad Pennington quarterbacked the 1999 team to a 13-0 record and No. 10 national ranking, the Marshall coach said, “It’s a lot better than 1-1, I know that.”
Heater said his unit – while impressive to date -- can’t afford to get caught up in two one-sided victories.
“The best thing is they’ve done what we asked them to do, but we really don’t know how good Miami of Ohio is (losing 41-7 at Kentucky on Saturday). Gardner -Webb is another (FCS) division team. So, you’ve got to put it all in perspective.
“We did what you think you would do if you have a good team, it’s not our fault (the schedule to date), but in reality, if you start to honestly evaluate it, it starts the next two weeks. You play Ohio, a tough team, up there … good team, they win, tough team, physical.
“Then the week after that at Virginia Tech … Those will be a better test of our mettle. We need to keep playing good defense for us to have a chance to win those games … next week for sure.”
Still, it’s been a while since Marshall felt this good about football – just about a decade. Yes, that’s a long time in pigskin years.