Nov. 30, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – In what many expected to be a nail-biting battle for the Conference USA East Division football championship, East Carolina’s Pirates played like they didn’t know what hit them.
Maybe that’s understandable.
Most of the playmakers on Marshall’s defense weren’t at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on the ECU campus one year ago, when the Thundering Herd’s bowl hopes were dashed in a shootout.
One year earlier in those Bucs’ backyard, Marshall scored 59 points … and lost in double overtime.
The Thundering Herd (9-3, 7-1) hung the same number on its side of the scoreboard Friday afternoon at Edwards Stadium, and won going away, 59-28, advancing to next Saturday’s C-USA Championship Game for the first time in nine seasons in the league.
The noon date (ESPN2 telecast) against West Division champ Rice (9-3, 7-1) will be a title-game first appearance for both programs. The host site won’t be determined until the BCS standings are revealed late Sunday night at the earliest, and the average computer ranking for those outside the BCS top 25 is the determining factor.
The Owls clinched the West title with a 17-13 home victory Saturday against Tulane (7-5, 5-3).
Marshall has won three of its four C-USA meetings with Rice, including a 54-51 double-overtime triumph last season in Houston.
Meanwhile, the victory was Marshall’s first against a team that had nine wins since the Herd’s triumph over a 9-3 Toledo team in the 2002 Mid-American Conference title game at Edwards Stadium.
Marshall’s potent offense – it’s even stronger than last season’s group, with more balance – continues to roll. For the first time in Herd history, Marshall has five consecutive games of at least 500 yards total offense (and a 601.8-yard average in those five straight wins).
Meanwhile, the Herd’s defense has made its own statement.
Back in August, first-year MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said he was “encouraged” about the prospects on his unit. Marshall coach Doc Holliday has been nothing but effusive about the defense most weeks since then.
As Marshall heads for the C-USA title game, nine of the Herd’s top 14 tacklers weren’t on the field a year ago. They were injured, or sitting out for academics, or hadn’t arrived on campus yet as recruits.
And consider that it’s a unit that lost one of its mainstays – senior defensive end Jeremiah Taylor – to a back injury in a Week 3 loss at Ohio.
In Friday’s title game-clinching win, only two of the Herd’s top 10 tacklers were playing for the Herd last season. And that list doesn’t include backup “fox” (rush) end Gary Thompson. The redshirt freshman had two interceptions of star Pirate quarterback Shane Carden.
Thompson’s third-quarter interception for a touchdown was the Herd’s first pick-to-TD by a defensive lineman since the late Johnathan Goddard scored from his defensive end spot on a 23-yard interception of Ryan Hawk on Oct. 9, 2004 in a 16-13 Marshall win at Ohio’s Peden Stadium.
Thompson’s return also was the third for a touchdown for Marshall this season (joining Raheem Waiters and Monterius Lovett). It’s the first time the Herd has three interceptions for scores in a season since 2004, when Chris Royal, Robert Terrell and Goddard scored TDs on picks.
Heater opened the game with a 3-3-5 scheme that confused ECU, and the Pirates never recovered.
Perhaps as significant a statement about the great improvement of the Herd defense comes just after the coin toss. In its five straight wins, the Herd has won the flip each time, and despite having the offensive potency is has had for two seasons, has deferred and put the defense on the field first.
“We’ve got some good players,” Heater said after the rout of East Carolina. “We’ve got linebackers who can run, defensive backs who can cover, and we’ve got some guys who can pressure the quarterback.”
Heater is primarily utilizing 18 players as regulars on defense as the season turns to December – eight linemen, four linebackers and six in the secondary. The depth up front has been a tremendous plus for Marshall, keeping those “trench fighters” fresh.
The new faces among the regulars (or back from injury or surgery and rehab) include linebackers Evan McKelvey, Neville Hewitt and Stefan Houston; linemen Thompson, James Rouse and Arnold Blackmon; with Lang, Corey Tindal, Darryl Roberts, Taj Letman and A.J. Leggett.
Add them to linemen Alex Bazzie, Ra’Shawde Myers, Brandon Sparrow, Steve Dillon and Jarquez Samuel; middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes and corner Monterius Lovett and Heater hasn’t just helped Marshall turn the page defensively.
He’s writing a new book.
And consider that of the 18 names mentioned above, the only losses after this season are Bazzie, Sparrow and Lovett.
“The offense has been tremendous,” Heater said after the game. “We just had to get a defense that was good enough to win. “Doc did that with recruiting. He got the offense fixed two years ago with recruiting. He got the defense squared away this year with recruiting.”
Heater, in his 38th year as a major college assistant coach, is with his 18th team that has reached at least nine victories. That’s saying something, considering most seasons the 12 schools at which he has worked didn’t play more than 12 games.
He got the Marshall defense squared away with his teachings.
Some of the numbers are startling, in an apples-to-apples (12 games) comparison to the 5-7 team of a year ago (rankings entering Saturday’s games):
*Total defense – 357.0 yards now (ranked 29th of 125 FBS teams); 456.8 then (ranked 103rd);
*Rush defense – 150.6 (45th); 203.5 (105th);
*Pass defense – 206.4 (23rd); 253.5 (94th);
*Scoring defense – 21.7 points (30th); 43.1 (123rd);
*Opponent 3rd-down conversions – 33.3% (18th); 44.8% (99th);
*Sacks – 29 (28th); 19 (91st); the last time Marshall had more than 29 sacks was 30 in 2006;
*Interceptions – 17 (11th); 9 (87th); the 17 picks are the most for the Herd since 19 in 2004;
*Tackles for loss – 94 (2nd); 73 (63rd);
*Opponent scrimmage plays of 10 or more yards – 160 (57th); 193 (93rd).
After the win over ECU – the biggest victory for Marshall football in 11 years -- Heater said, “We had to be the best defense today.”
Actually, the Herd has been the better defense for a while now, not just against the Pirates. That’s why Marshall will play for its first Conference USA championship next weekend.
Conference USA began playing a football championship game in 2005, when Marshall and five other schools joined the league to create a 12-team, all-sports alignment. A look at the previous C-USA title games:
At Orlando, Fla. – Tulsa 44, UCF 27
At Houston – Houston 34, Southern Miss 20
At Orlando, Fla. – UCF 44, Tulsa 25
At Tulsa, Okla. – East Carolina 27, Tulsa 24
At Greenville, N.C. – East Carolina 38, No. 18 Houston 32
At Orlando, Fla. – UCF 17, SMU 7
At Houston – No. 23 Southern Miss 49, No. 6 Houston 28
At Tulsa, Okla. – Tulsa 33, UCF 27 (OT)
At Huntington, W.Va., or Houston – Marshall vs. Rice, Dec. 7, noon (ESPN2)