Oct. 21, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Remember the Fox TV show of recent vintage, “Malcolm in the Middle,” where the title character was a pretty average kid except the fact he was really smart and was somewhat uncomfortable with that?
Well, Marshall’s football team now has Mitchell in the Middle, and the guy brought more than innate knowledge of his position and role to an improved Thundering Herd defense on Saturday night.
In a 59-24 thumping of winless Southern Mississippi, Billy Mitchell made his first career start at middle linebacker for the Herd (3-4, 2-1), bouncing back after suffering concussions in April and August.
At Roberts Stadium – aka “The Rock,” -- it was Mitchell who was oh-so solid for the Herd, and left people talking the defense in Kelly Green on a night when Marshall gained 629 yards, its highest total offense in a decade.
The night was something Mitchell recently wondered whether it would ever come – playing again, not the start.
It wasn’t so much that the 6-foot-3, 238-pound redshirt junior forced a crucial fumble as the Golden Eagles (0-7, 0-3) were one yard from trying to climb back into the game in the third quarter, it was more his presence to his Herd that mattered most.
Was it any wonder that maybe for the first time this season, MU defensive coordinator Chris Rippon had a trace of a smile as he left the field?
“It was awesome, I couldn’t believe it, just awesome,” Mitchell said after a four-tackle game. “It was nothing that Coach Rip hasn’t implemented. I was just doing my job, putting people in place to make plays.”
Mitchell is this season’s Tyson Gale, the senior linebacker who last season knew the Herd defense backward and forward, and was Rippon’s coach on the field, the defensive facilitator, if you will.
“I thought Billy Mitchell
kind of settled things down in there for us a little bit,” Marshall Coach Doc Holliday
said. “You know, he’s got some experience and he played a whole lot of football for us a year ago and being in there, I felt like he gave us a kind of calmness to the defense. I thought the defense played tremendous.”
Back in spring practice, before Mitchell suffered his first concussion, the Navarre, Fla., native explained his handling of that very crucial role.
“I feel very comfortable,” Mitchell said six months ago. “I know the whole defense inside and out … This is my third year with it, and I feel real comfortable getting people lined up and telling people what to do.”
He came back from his first concussion to finish spring drills, and was the middle linebacker starter in the Green-White spring game. Then, in the first scrimmage of preseason camp in August, he took another blow to the head.
He didn’t return to full-contact practice until last week, when he and Jermaine Holmes split reps with the first unit.
“I wasn’t sure (how long he’d be sidelined), and I wanted to get back as soon as possible but my health is my main concern right now,” Mitchell said. “So, I took every preventative step I needed, and unfortunately it took this long, but I’m glad I made it back for this game.”
His teammates noticed his presence from the start, and with he and defensive tackle Ken Smith making their first starts, the Herd defense gains needed – and valuable depth, too.
“Billy Mitchell made a big difference, a really big difference,” said Herd defensive tackle Brandon Sparrow, who had two sacks in the win. “It’s just communication-wise and the fact that he comes downhill more.
“I felt like he wanted it and he came out to prove a point, and he proved it.”
Mitchell said the only point he wanted to prove was that he was ready to play … and longing to do so. He said that during the Herd’s Oct. 6 Homecoming loss to Tulsa, he was on the field and had serious doubts about finishing the 2012 season.
He said the forced fumble wasn’t his biggest play.
“Just getting out there, getting all of the jitters out, that was the biggest play for me,” Mitchell said. “The forced fumble, it was no big deal, they were driving the ball. I was proud of that.
“The first play was definitely butterflies, but it was fun. After that first play I knew I was right at home, and it was just playing ball.”
Mitchell, who came to Marshall with former Coach Mark Snyder’s designs to follow in the footsteps on star tight end Cody Slate, said the frustration built in the nine weeks since his second concussion on Aug. 11.
“You can’t work out, can’t do anything strenuous,” he said, “so it was just came to practice, cheer my guys on, it was a rough six weeks … Yeah, there was a point where I was really down.
“It was depressing not being out there, coming to home games and you could feel the crowd and not be able to be out there. It was hard.”
# # #
While the Herd squashed Southern Miss’ streak of 18 consecutive winning seasons while holding the Golden Eagles to 331 yards – a season-low against Marshall – it was offensive coordinator Bill Legg’s side of the ball that also made a statement.
Marshall’s 629 yards total offense was the most for a Herd team in seven-plus years of Conference USA play … and the most since Oct. 12, 2002, when the Herd snowed over Buffalo 66-21 in a Mid-American Conference game, gaining 733 yards at Edwards Stadium in the process.
It was MU’s most yards in a road game since the week previous to that Buffalo win, when Byron Leftwich and Co. gained 645 in a 42-21 win at Kent State.
Marshall’s 38 points at halftime Saturday were the most in a half for the Herd since getting 52 in the first half of the aforementioned home win over Buffalo in 2002, and the most in a half away from “The Joan” since getting 43 in the third and fourth quarters (not including overtimes) for the 2001 GMAC Bowl double OT triumph over East Carolina.
The Herd had 26 plays of 10 or more yards against Southern Miss, and leads the nation in that category at 22.1 per game. Marshall has 155 plays of 10 or more yards this season in seven games, after getting only 129 in Holliday’s first full season (2010) and 157 in 13 games a year ago.
The 35-point win was the Herd’s most lopsided road triumph in its Conference USA years, and the widest margin of victory on the road since a 59-3 win at Buffalo in 1999.