BOGACZYK: Herd Defense Owns Plenty of Stop Signs
The Word on the Herd-Oct. 28, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Two-thirds of the way through the regular season, most of the chatter surrounding No. 23 and unbeaten Marshall centers on the ground game rooted in Devon Johnson’s bullish rushing and whether the Herd can land the Group of Five berth in a College Football Playoff access bowl.
Well, if Coach Doc Holliday’s team is going to get where it wants to go – a first Conference USA title for the school and one of those New Year’s Day bowls in the new postseason format – it’s going to take something else, too.
"Defense wins championships," Holliday is ever-so-quick to remind anyone who will listen.
And in a second season under veteran defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, the Herd (8-0) has made significant progress when star quarterback Rakeem Cato and Johnson are on the sideline.
Heater set goals for the 2014 Herd defense to improve from last season and hold opponents to 18 or fewer points per game, and post a third-down conversion number of 33 percent or better. So far, as Marshall sits with an open date this Saturday, the defense has been up to the task.
"In my eyes, the difference from last season to this one is a little more determination now," Marshall senior defensive end Arnold Blackmon said. "We struggled sometimes in the spring and in the summer we just kind of pulled together and realized if we were going to be the dominant team that we wanted to be and have the kind of success we wanted to have, it would take extreme determination.
"We need to go out and not quit. It’s no acceptable to not succeed all of the time, because that’s not reasonable when you want to accomplish what we wanted. You have to have enough will to just not quit, not give up."
With the Herd offense alone in major college football in scoring at least 35 points in every game this season, the Herd defense could play well enough to win and get by. Marshall is No. 1 in FBS scoring margin (29.4 points per game).
But Heater’s unit was intent this season on playing what safety A.J. Leggett has called "well enough to win with our defense, no matter what the offense does."
Through eight games, the Herd ranks eighth in scoring defense at 16.5 points per game, and ranks 10th in FBS in limiting opponents to 4.47 yards per play. Marshall is No. 15 in third-down stops, with a 31.1 percent rate (41-of-132) and No. 11 on fourth down, allowing foes only 23.5 percent success (4-of-17).
"Coach Heater preaches every day to us … ‘You’ve got to get off the field on third down,’" Blackmon said. "‘If you don’t we’ve got to sub.’ That puts more pressure on the coaching staff, as well as the backups. So, getting off the field on third down makes it a lot easier on everybody.
"Throughout every practice, he emphasizes third down. You can go by Coach Heater any day, a regular day on campus, you’re walking and you see him and he’ll say, ‘You got to get off the field on third down, do you remember that?’ He’s a very spirited guy and we love him to death."
Marshall is ranked 28th in total defense, allowing 342.8 yards per game, and the Herd has accomplished that despite being on the field a lot – thanks to a quick-strike offense. Heater’s defense has been on the field for 613 plays, which ranks 111th of 128 teams in the country.
That’s why that 4.47 yards per play number is so crucial. The Herd also has 34 three-and-outs in eight games and has stopped foes nine times with goal-line stands (inside the 10), allowing only three field goals on those nine stands.
"I think what’s made a difference is last year we were still learning the defense," said linebacker Neville Hewitt, whose 62 tackles lead Marshall. "With Coach Heater coming in, it was a new defense to the guys who were here.
"We a lot of new faces, too (including junior college transfer Hewitt), and we were still learning the concepts as we went along. This year, we know the concepts, and while we’re still learning a few things, everybody has bought in and they know more than they did last year. When you know more, you play, you don’t have to think and react."
The Herd defense has made its share of big plays. For example, senior cornerback Darryl Roberts ranks in the top five in FBS in passes defended (14), and several of those have been major knockdowns. There also are 59 tackles for loss that rank No. 12 nationally, and MU has 37 pass breakups and nine interceptions.
But it is a consistency of success and on-the-field denial that has marked the season to date.
"It comes down to winning the one-on-ones," said Hewitt, who had 18 tackles in last Saturday’s win over FAU. "Coach says to win your one-and-ones. If that’s your tackle to be made, you’ve got to make it. If you’ve got to knock the ball down, do it. When your number is called, you’ve got to make the play. That’s why our third down defense has been as good as it has this year."
Up front, the Herd has rolled 8-9 players in and out of the lineup this season, and that has kept a fresh foursome on the field. Heater regularly has played 19-20 players, and that increased depth is another difference from last season.
"The best thing we’re doing on defense is competing, by far," Blackmon said. "We compete among ourselves every day. Nothing is perfect. No one on the team is perfect. It’s just that we go out and compete and we all need to be the football players we know we can be. We go out and compete with one another during the week, and then go out on Saturdays and have fun. That’s our goal."
Hewitt – he leads the Herd in TFLs (8) and sacks (4) -- said a reason the Herd linebackers are getting more tackles in recent games is the rested defensive linemen are getting more consistent penetration and push, and the linebackers have spent more time in the film room in recent weeks to seek a mental edge, too.
So, what’s underrated about the Marshall defense?
"I don’t think our safeties get enough credit for all they do," Hewitt said. "A.J. Leggett, Taj Letman, Tiquan Lang, they’re playing really good ball this year. They make plays. I’d say nine out of 10 plays that come their way, they make them, whether it’s a tackle or knocking a ball down, or a pick."
Blackmon took a different approach to the "underrated" notion.
"I think it’s our special teams, and part of that is defense," Blackmon said. "The reason I say that is most of our best players are on special teams, and there’s a reason for that. Those can be the turning points in a game … kickoff, kickoff return. Most definitely, you’ve got to make plays, get people on the ground, give us a place to stand."
As Marshall points toward a Nov. 8 date at Southern Miss and then a final push for the host’s role for the C-USA title game, what does the Herd defense need to do better, or that it hasn’t done?
Blackmon provided a quick response.
"We need to create more turnovers (14 in eight games thus far)," said Blackmon, who has 22 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and 3 sacks. "We need to give our offense more of a chance to have the ball in its hands, and not just to score, but to have a chance to manage the clock better.
"We need to create turnovers and get off the field sooner and add a little more excitement to the defensive side of the ball."