BOGACZYK: Herd Defense Faces Tall Order in WKU, Doughty
The Word on the Herd-Nov. 24, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – If it seems Western Kentucky’s offense consumed Marshall in a 49-point first half in an upset, overtime road victory for the Hilltoppers this same week of last season, well, the Herd has been consumed by that half and that loss much longer.
“We’ve been talking about it for what – 361 days?” Marshall redshirt cornerback Rodney Allen said Monday. “So everybody was like, ‘You’ve got to beat ‘em.’ … Alumni who played last year, Rakeem Cato, Tommy Shuler, they always text us, like, ‘You’ve got to win that game.’ So, we’ve got to win.”
The Herd (9-2, 6-1) understands that’s easier said than done, as it heads to WKU (9-2, 7-0) on Friday to battle for the Conference USA East Division title and a spot in the Dec. 5 C-USA Championship Game. It’s winner-take-all, and that almost surely includes the home-field advantage in that aforementioned title game.
Western has star quarterback Brandon Doughty putting up Cato-like numbers, finding multiple receivers who are among the best Marshall’s defense has seen in Coach Doc Holliday’s six seasons. Four of the five starting WKU offensive linemen are back from 2014, too.
The Herd hasn’t forgotten that 67-66 Edwards Stadium loss to WKU that halted Marshall’s unbeaten season, or that seven-touchdown Hilltopper first half, six of those on Doughty passes.
“They made plays,” Holliday said at his Monday news conference. “They just made play after play in that first half and, on defense, we didn’t. To their credit, they made all the plays and you can’t let that happen. If you’re going to play a good team like that, with a great quarterback like they have with good skill kids, then you better have some good players on defense who can make plays at some point.
“We didn’t a year ago. In the second half, we made a few more plays, but we sure as hell can’t wait until the second half to make that happen again this year. We didn’t get them stopped when we had to. At the end of the day, it comes down to players making plays on both sides of the ball.
“Defensively, if we can’t make any plays, that’s a problem for us. There is a reason that they’re scoring as many points as they are and beating people like they’re beating them. They have a quarterback who is as good as anyone in the country. It’s going to be a great challenge for our defense but I know Chuck (Heater, defensive coordinator) and our defense likes challenges.”
In Marshall’s last outing, a 52-0 rout of FIU – and the Herd’s first shutout of an FBS opponent in 12 seasons – Heater moved his top cornerback, Corey Tindal, to nickel, giving Allen more field time with senior Keith Baxter at the other corner. There was a method to this late-season move.
“FIU’s best player was the slot (receiver Clinton Taylor),” Holliday said. “He had made the most plays for them and we wanted to get Corey on their best player. That’s the reason we made the move that we did. A lot of that has to do with personnel matchups.
“Chuck (Heater) has some things he’ll do a little different this week too, I’m sure. The problem with WKU is that they don’t have just one guy you can try to take away. They have three tremendous receivers and a bigtime tight end (Tyler Higbee, out four games due to injury) who will probably be back against us.”
Heater’s unit had several different faces step up in that win over FIU.
Senior Ricardo Williams got his first career start at nose tackle, with two-year starter Jarquez Samuel out while bouncing back from injury. Allen played 39 of 52 defensive snaps at corner, and middle linebacker Shawn Petty came off the bench to make eight tackles.
“It just gave me more experience and gave me more confidence,” Allen said of his play against FIU, which included an interception and a 29-yard return before he fumbled. “Corey took me under his wing. He said ‘You’ve got to play hard; you’ve got to play with toughness. We need you; we’re counting on you.’ I knew I had to go out there and play.”
Since then, with Marshall having an open date last Saturday before visiting WKU, Allen said it hasn’t been anything like a bye week.
“It’s been kind of rough because Coach Heater been tough on me,” the redshirt sophomore and converted wide receiver said. “I’m a young guy and I’ve got to be step up and play, because this is my first time really playing, so … I’m excited because last year I didn’t get to play (against WKU), so I was like, ‘Dang, we lost.’ I know last year I wouldn’t have been any better (than the Herd players on the field) but this year I’ve got to make something happen.”
He isn’t alone. Doughty has been sacked only 10 times while leading the nation with a .728 passing percentage (295-of-405).
“We’re really excited,” Williams said. “We have an opportunity to get a win against those guys who won last year, go to the championship. I kind of think everybody has a chip on our shoulders coming into this week.
“They’ve got a good offensive line we’ll be facing. We’ve just got to get off the blocks, push the pocket, gets hands up, get some pressure, do something to help our DBs with coverage.
“(Doughty) is really good back there, throwing from the pocket -- and he can move around in the pocket, too, get it to his playmakers. And he’s a playmaker himself, so our job as a D-line is just to get pressure on him, hit him, get a hand up in his face, and hopefully he can make some bad throws.”
Holliday and his players understand that WKU’s defense is much improved from last season, but the Herd’s defensive numbers are better, too. It’s not going to be the Hilltoppers’ offense against the Marshall defense for 60 minutes, as the veteran MU coach pointed out.
Marshall is playing to become the first C-USA team to reach three straight conference championship games since the league expanded with realignment in 2005. WKU is trying to become only the second C-USA team since ’05 to go 8-0 in a league regular season, joining Houston in 2011.
“We have to be the best team,” Holliday said. “For us to win this game, it has to come down to who is the best team on that particular day. For us to win, we have to be the best team, at noon on Friday, in offense, defense and special teams.
“We have to take care of the ball. At the end of the day, we turned it over four times (Cato interceptions) last year. It’s hard to win when you turn it over four times. You have to play great defense. That’s where it starts. When you get into the red zone, you have to score and we have to keep them out of the red zone and we have to play great special teams.
“That’s the plan to win, but if you do those things, you’ve got a shot. If you don’t, it won’t be a very happy bus on the way home.”