BOGACZYK: Holliday, Herd Say Kent Defense No Flash in Pan
The Word on the Herd-Sept. 22, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – It’s a trip north again to an old Mid-American Conference road destination for Marshall football this Saturday, and the Herd understands this time the challenge may come from many directions.
“Defensively, they’re all over the place, and I mean that in a positive way,” Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said Tuesday when asked about Kent State, which plays host to the Herd at Dix Stadium in a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
The Golden Flashes (1-2) lead the series 18-17, but haven’t beaten Marshall since 1978, and the Herd has won the last 10 in a series that was curbed when MU left the MAC after the 2004 season. This non-league home-and-home brings a return date to Edwards Stadium in 2017.
That past and future won’t do the Herd much good, however, against a KSU defense that in the first three games of the season – two of those losses at Big Ten Conference members Illinois and Minnesota – ranks No. 3 in total defense (199.0 yards per game). The Golden Flashes permit only 1.85 yards per rush and have 29 tackles for loss, including nine sacks split among six players.
“They’re very aggressive; they’ll blitz you … an awful lot of blitzing and getting after it,” Holliday said of a Kent defense that plays from a 4-2 base but morphs into seemingly every scheme except the proverbial kitchen sink. “They bring different players from a lot of different areas and they play extremely hard.”
And after losing their only previous road game at a MAC stadium – Ohio’s Peden Stadium – Herd players aren’t overlooking the Golden Flashes.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Marshall junior center Mike Selby said. “They’re No. 3 in total defense in the nation, only allow 66 yards rushing (per game), so it’s a huge challenge for us as an offense and an offensive line.
“We’ve got to control the line of scrimmage, get to the second level. They show a lot of different looks on defense and we’ve got to be able to manage and identify those looks and get everyone with hat-on-hat. The thing they do most is use different personnel to show you different looks, so it’s about identifying odd, even and the looks they give us.
“They just try to use different formations, different personnel, and they have a great D-line – nine sacks so far this season so they’re doing a great job to create pressure and using different packages to help in different situations. So, we’ve just got to communicate among the offensive line and quarterback, and if we do that, we’ll be OK.”
The Herd’s Devon Johnson is averaging almost twice as many ground yards per game – 127.0 to be exact – as the Golden Flashes have allowed. And establishing the run will be crucial with true freshman Chase Litton ready to make his first quarterback start on the road.
“I’m going to try to run like I do every game,” said Johnson, who got his 12th career 100-yard rushing game (in 16 games at running back) against Norfolk State last weekend. “They have a great defense, and just seeing that, the way they run, fly around and make plays, it’s fun to watch their defense go at it on film.
“As an offense and as a running back, you know we’re going to do what we do – and that’s have fun playing football. We’re going to try to make the plays that Coach (Bill) Legg (offensive coordinator) puts out there.”
Selby said the Golden Flashes will be primed to slow Johnson, who hasn’t rushed for fewer than 89 yards in any of the 14 games in which he’s been healthy.
“Anytime you go up against a great defense like they are, third in nation – it’s a huge challenge for our offense,” Selby said. “And we look forward to those challenges because it doesn’t matter who the opponent is, we just want to run the ball and keep our quarterback off the ground.
“Whatever we’ve got to do to get that done, we’ve got to do it.”
Johnson said the Golden Flashes – with hybrid positions labeled “Leo” and “Apache” on the depth chart – remind him of the fast, athletic defenders in Conference USA foes FIU and Florida Atlantic.
“They make plays,” Johnson said when asked how Kent’s defense might be different from what the Herd has seen in its 2-1 start. “They fly around and their linebacker corps is very athletic and they’re going to hit you. They’re downhill and side-to-side, so … Most teams we’ve faced so far are either just downhill great linebackers or side-to-side great linebackers.
“But these guys are downhill and side-to-side and they do it very well. They attack the run and defend the pass equally well. As a running back, we’re going to put our foot in the ground and get north as quick as possible. That’s our main goal as a running back unit – to play fast and get upfield as fast as we can.”
Coach Paul Haynes’ team also is holding opponents to a .295 percentage (13-of-44) on third down. Holliday said last week’s 10-7 loss at Minnesota is most indicative of the Golden Flashes, whose 52-3 season opening loss at Illinois was fueled by the Fighting Illini starting seven possessions inside the KSU 43 and four first-half Kent turnovers.
“You’ve got to know where they’re lined up and got to identify them,” Holliday said. “They have three-down stuff, mix in some four-down, some Bear (variations of the 46) defenses. They do a lot of different things … We’ll have our hands full with that defense.
“They have a lot personnel groupings. They do a good job matching their personnel to your personnel groupings. They’re a little bit like us, getting into their third-down package, our Joker package or nickel package. They have different packages to match up.”
Holliday also said it also won’t be lost on the Herd the success the MAC has had in the season’s first three weeks, including wins at Arkansas and Maryland, a victory over Iowa State and close losses at Ohio State and Minnesota.
Selby said that after the struggles at Ohio in a 21-10 loss, it’s crucial that the Herd doesn’t play with any bus lag from Friday’s trip up I-77.
“Definitely, when you’re on the road, you want to play with confidence,” the Marshall center said. “You want your offense rolling and want your defense feeding off your offense. We’ve just got to stay focused. “We didn’t do that at Ohio. We need to do that on the road this week. If we stay focused, eliminate the mental errors, play tough and we’ll be all right.”
# # # At his weekly news conference early Tuesday afternoon, Holliday said Litton would make his second straight start after getting the job once it was discovered that junior transfer Michael Birdsong had a right shoulder injury.
“Litton, right now, is our starter,” the Herd coach said. “When Birdsong is able and ready to compete for that job – like any other job – he’ll be able to compete for it. But if we had to play today, Litton would be our quarterback and I’m sure he’ll run out there (in practice) with our first personnel group today.”
The Herd depth chart revealed Tuesday had Litton and Birdsong listed with an “OR” between their names for first-team status.