MCGILL: Defense Key to Turnaround for Marshall, FAU
The Word on the Herd -- Nov. 2, 2017
By Chuck McGill
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Marshall and Florida Atlantic will meet on the football field this Friday night as programs in the middle of a turnaround of fortunes from last season. Both teams, 3-9 a year ago, are in the Conference USA East Division title hunt as the calendar flips to November.
FAU boasts one of the most potent offenses among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, but like the visiting Thundering Herd, the Owls’ success might have more to do with defense. Sure, FAU’s offense is averaging 94 more yards per game, attributed to a rushing attack that is averaging 107 more yards per game this season. But the Owls’ defense has turned a league-worst unit into a solid and opportunistic one, a group that is allowing 86 fewer yards per game and 1.40 fewer yards per play than it did in 2016.
“They’re one of the more athletic defenses we’ve played, if not the most athletic defense,” said Ryan Yurachek, Marshall’s senior tight end. “They’re as fast sideline to sideline as anyone we’ve seen. They don’t have the big gap-pluggers up front. They don’t have the huge defensive ends. They’re hybrid guys who move side to side. Same thing with their linebacker corps … they’re not the biggest guys in the world. You have to do a great job of getting on blocks, you have to do a great job of scheming them up. They’re as athletic as can be in all phases of their defense.”
Marshall (6-2, 3-1 C-USA) – the only bowl eligible team in the league – is in the process of a similar makeover. The Herd defense, which struggled a year ago, is allowing 130 fewer yards per game and 1.45 fewer yards per play.
FAU (5-3, 4-0 C-USA) has forced 20 turnovers (14 interceptions and six fumbles recovered), and the Owls rank No. 2 nationally in interceptions, No. 5 in turnover margin and No. 4 in turnovers gained. That has provided the offense with plenty of short fields, which has made things easier on an offense that makes things look easy.
“They’ve created a boatload of turnovers,” said Bill Legg, Marshall’s offensive coordinator and tight ends coach.
Florida Atlantic, which opened the season 1-3, enters Friday’s home game on CBS Sports Network with four consecutive wins – all in C-USA play. FAU is plus-11 in turnover margin in that four-game stretch, including three games of being plus-three in that category.
That means the Marshall offense, led by junior quarterback Chase Litton, will need to be on high alert when it comes to turnovers. The Herd was minus-three in turnover margin in last Saturday’s loss to Florida International. This season, MU is 0-2 when losing the turnover battle by two or more. In the last five seasons under head coach Doc Holliday, Marshall is 11-1 when winning the turnover battle by two or more.
“You sure don’t want to give these guys anymore at-bats,” Holliday said of this week’s opponent. “That’s for sure.”
MATCHUP TO WATCH
FAU’s offense has generated national headlines under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. The Owls have already set the school’s single-season record for rushing yards … with four regular season games left.
Their running back, sophomore Devin Singletary, already has his second 1,000-yard rushing season. He is ninth nationally with 131.63 rushing yards per game (159 carries for 1,053 yards). Singletary’s 18 touchdowns lead the country.
“He’s the best kid we’ve seen,” MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said. “He’s a really good player. Great balance, vision, toughness, speed. He’s a real deal guy.”
Singletary has eclipsed 100 yards in six consecutive games and has scored on the ground in seven straight, including 16 in the last five games. He’ll face his toughest test this season when Marshall visits.
The Thundering Herd is No. 24 nationally in rushing defense (124.13 yards per game allowed on the ground), and has not yielded a 100-yard rusher in eight games this season. FIU’s two scores on the ground last week were the first two MU had allowed in conference play this season.
“That’s a good veteran (offensive line),” Heater said of FAU. “Big, strong guys who have been around. That poses a challenge for us. They are hitting tremendous numbers in their running game.”
WEST VIRGINIA CONNECTIONS
The FAU coaching staff has Mountain State ties on the offensive side of the ball.
Garin Justice, who coaches the offensive line, is a native of Gilbert. He also enjoyed a five-year stint as the head coach of Division II Concord, compiling a 40-17 record, including a 13-1 season in 2014. He joined the FAU staff before the 2016 season, and then was retained when Kiffin became head coach.
Clint Trickett, who coaches tight ends, is the son of Florida State offensive line coach and Masontown native Rick Trickett. Clint Trickett played collegiately before embarking on his coaching career. Clint Trickett started his career at East Mississippi Community College – the school featured in the Netflix documentary Last Chance U – and coached the quarterbacks there for two seasons. He was an assistant EMCC at the same time Marshall senior safety C.J. Reavis played there.
Junior quarterback Chase Litton is close to entering the top five in program history in passes attempted. He needs 28 attempts against FAU to equal Carl Fodor’s total of 1,059 attempts. Litton has already cracked the top five in Marshall history in completions (631), passing yards (7,130) and passing touchdowns (63). Litton is No. 6 in program history in completion percentage (61.2), but has not even cracked the top 10 in career interceptions (22).
Litton finally added to that interception total last Saturday against FIU, throwing a pair of picks and ending his streak of consecutive throws without an interception at 164. That is the second-longest streak in program history:
STAT OF THE WEEK
Florida Atlantic's offense leads Conference USA with eight plays from scrimmage of 50 yards or longer. The Marshall defense has yet to allowed a 50-yard play, the only C-USA school that can claim that.
There are seven schools that have not allowed a 50-yard play this season: Alabama, Illinois, Iowa State, Marshall, Michigan State, Troy and Washington.
The Herd allowed seven last season.
STAT OF THE WEEK, PART II
Heater warned about the Owls’ propensity to go for it on fourth down. So far this season, FAU is 12 of 21 on fourth downs, including 9 of 13 in C-USA play. The Owls lead the league in both fourth-down conversions and attempts.
STAT OF THE WEEK, PART III
Marshall running back Keion Davis led the team in rushing yards last season with 469. Now, with four regular season games remaining, the Herd has two running backs who have eclipsed that 2016 leading rushing total.
Davis has rushed for 518 yards on 99 carries with three touchdowns. Freshman Tyler King has 488 yards on 92 carries and five touchdowns.
As always, at home or on the road, the Marshall athletic department will provide in-game updates through social media websites Twitter and Facebook. Please follow me on Twitter – @chuckmcgill or www.twitter.com/chuckmcgill – and Marshall’s official football account – @HerdFB or www.twitter.com/HerdFB. Questions are welcome on Twitter or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org