Oct. 9, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The eye-popping numbers for Marshall football last season were on the offensive side of the ball. The Herd led the nation in plays and passing yards per game, among a few other statistics.
This season, it hasn’t been all about defense, but the retooled unit of Herd hitmen by veteran coordinator Chuck Heater has become the talk of the town … and beyond.
As Marshall (3-2, 1-0) heads to Florida Atlantic (2-4, 1-3) for a Conference USA game Saturday, the Herd is the nation’s most improved team (FBS) in scoring defense. There’s much more about that side of the ball to warm Herd hearts, too.
For instance, Marshall has allowed only 4.03 yards per play -- ranking in a tie for fifth nationally with Louisville, behind only Michigan State, Florida, Washington and Virginia Tech. Last season through five games, the Herd ranked last (124th) in the country, allowing 5.92 yards per play.
Heater spoke to the infusion of 13 new players who are contributing on defense after Marshall’s 34-10 win over UTSA last weekend. They’ve added to a solid core – strong safety D.J. Hunter, end Alex Bazzie, nose Brandon Sparrow, corner Monterius Lovett, for example – and delivered more than talent, too.
“I think that has kind of been the case all year with that defense,” Herd coach Doc Holliday said when asked about the speed of the defensive unit in his Tuesday news conference. “Those kids are extremely well-coached. We had six missed tackles in that game. They are tackling very well and are very athletic.
“Four of the five games we’ve played we have had single-digit missed tackles. The only game we had more was against Gardner-Webb (10, and many of those by backups in a 55-0 rout).
“We had to get more athletic in the linebacker position and in the secondary to defend. (Corner) Darryl Roberts has become a tremendous tackler there on the perimeter. (Nickel) Corey Tindal gave us more athleticism, with A.J. Leggett and Taj Letman (at free safety).”
Six of the nine top tacklers this season for the Herd weren’t on the field a year ago. Their athleticism shows up in a stat-fact like the following:
Marshall is one of only eight FBS teams to not have a 50-yard play by an opponent in 2013 (run, pass, punt or kick return). The others are Cincinnati, Iowa State, Memphis, Navy, Nebraska, Stanford and Wisconsin.
By the end of last season (5-7), that number of 50-yard plays for the Herd was 14.
Meanwhile, the Marshall defensive differences from last season to this are impressive, using an apples-to-apples comparison of the first five games:
The numbers in parentheses are the rankings among FBS teams (124 teams last season; 125 this season).
2013 Category 2012
278.8 yds (8) Total 495.8 yds (115)
99.8 yds (14) Rush 224.8 yds (110)
179.0 (15) Pass 271.0 yds (92)
14.4 ppg (tie 20) Scoring 44.4 ppg (120)
22-75, 29.3% (16) Opp. 3rd down 39-77, 50.7% (113)
9 (tie 7) Interceptions 3 (tie 74)
14 (tie 23) Sacks 10 (tie 25)
12 (tie 19) TO gained 4 (tie 106)
346 (43) Opp. plays 419 (124)
4.03 (tie 5) Yds per play 5.92 (tie 93)
Holliday often talks about “getting off the field.” The Herd knows how to do that now. Marshall also is forcing turnovers. The nine interceptions in five games – including two for touchdowns -- match the total for the 2012 season.
I asked Bazzie for some perspective about going from No. 115 to 8 in total defense. He paraphrased Yogi Berra … It’s never over ‘til it’s over.
“It’s an accomplishment, but that accomplishment isn’t fulfilled yet,” the quarterback-chasing “fox” end said. “I try not to look at the stats, because it can always change. At any given point it can change. You go out there and have a bad game and before you know it, you can be back in the 100s.
“I’m just trying to let the guys know, ‘Look, that’s where we are right now.’ What matters is where we are at the end of the season. If we can stay in the top 10 at the end of the season, then we’ve finished the job … We have to just continue the consistency and not focus too much on the stats to have a great defense and have great accomplishments at the end of the year.”
In the win over UTSA, Heater went with a defense featuring only one down lineman, with 10 defenders “standing up” to confuse the Roadrunners and cope with their perimeter attack – that never materialized.
“Whatever (Heater) says, we’re going to do it,” said linebacker Neville Hewitt, the top Marshall tackler (with 34) as a junior college transfer. He seems like ‘Guru,’ been around a lot longer than any of us on the field. That one down lineman, I’ve seen that in in a video game, you might see NFL teams do it – rarely -- but not on this level.”
Bazzie said the 1-5-5 set – so to speak – labeled “Radar” by the Herd was similar to a defense his Maryland high school team ran once or twice, and it was named “Scrambled Eggs.”
“Coach Heater always has a plan behind what he does,” Bazzie said when asked if the Herd defenders thought their coordinator had gone batty. “Our down lineman were like ‘Oh, we get to stand up.’ Some of us (linemen) were back there in linebacker positions, trying to act like fools at the same time. We were just out there, really having fun.
“There was a time and point where even the linebackers didn’t know we had that freedom up front. So we had (end) Arnold Blackmon about 5 yards off the ball with his hands on his thighs in a linebacker stance right by Neville Hewitt. And Neville’s like, ‘Yo, man, what are you doing? Get up there, get up there. You’re a 5-technique (outside shoulder of the offensive tackle).’
“And you could see it on film where Neville is looking lost and pointing up at the line, like you’re supposed to be at the line. It was so hilarious, but like I said, it created freedom for us and allowed us to go out and have fun and enjoy the game of football.”
The Herd defense is enjoying a lot more than the game these days.
“Chuck and that defensive staff have done a great job at rolling nine defensive linemen out there,” Holliday said. “Most plays that anyone has played are about 38-39 snaps. There’s no reason that they can’t go in there and be extremely athletic and play really hard. That has helped us with our depth and that kind of thing.
“We aren’t playing 80-90 snaps because we are being able to get off the field on third downs. We’re playing in the 60s because we were 4-of-14 on third down conversions (defense). We’re doing a lot of things as a total team and we try to be good in all three phases.
“Saturday we played our most complete game – on offense, defense and special teams and that has to continue throughout the year. The defense has to feed off of the offense and the offense off the defense. That’s when you become a total team and I think we’re getting close to that point.”