HUNTINGTON, W.Va.—Each week Marshall’s defense has shown improvements in scheme and athleticism and the numbers have borne that out. Compare this year’s defensive stats with last year’s and it obvious how far the unit has progressed in a short period of time.
Marshall is 8th nationally in total defense allowing 278.8 yards per game. Last season it was 103rd with 456.8 yards a game. Rush defense has jumped from 105th to 14th, allowing less than 100 yards on the ground each week. Pass defense is 15th in the county. Maybe the most telling stat that illustrates Marshall’s superior athletic ability compared to last year, The Herd is yet to give up a play of 50 yards or more. That’s tied for tops in the country.
“They’re very athletic. In four of the five games we were in single digit missed tackles. I look out there and watch our defense play and we’re more athletic. I sat here for three years and said we needed to get more athletic at linebackers and in the secondary and I think we’ve got there to an extent,” says coach Doc Holliday.
Marshall’s defense is also staying fresh throughout the game. Defensive coordinator Chuck Heater has been able to roll players in and out of games ensuring that everyone is able to go above and beyond expectations.
“We’ve played nine d-linemen in and out of there and the most anyone has played is 38 or 39 snaps,” says Holliday. “There’s no reason that can’t go in there and be extremely athletic and play extremely hard that entire game.”
Heater and company had a little time to open a new section of the defensive playbook last week against UTSA, employing a shifty defensive front that the Roadrunners were obviously not prepared for. Linemen had trouble identifying their targets and Marshall put quarterback Eric Soza on the turf all day long.
“It was definitely confusing them,” says defensive lineman Brandon Sparrow. “That was the first time we’ve used it this season. I didn’t even think we were going to use it. They were falling off the ball and jumping offsides.”
Heater knows that teams have schemes to block the shifty defensive front, but it’s another element that offenses will have to be ready for.
“Whenever you see something you have to address it and make sure you have rules and at that point it becomes a gameplan issue. You have to be smart about it and there’s a place for but its not an answer to all the ills we have.”
This week Marshall faces yet another athletic quarterback in the Owls’ Jaquez Johnson. Johnson is the catalyst for the FAU offense. He was named the Conference USA player of the week following the Owls’ 37-23 win over UAB. He accounted for 404 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. He threw for 299 yards and rushed for 105 more. Holliday says Johnson is a little different from quarterbacks such as Tyler Tettleton or Eric Soza.
“This guys is more of a one back power quarterback. He’s a guy that they’ll run inside zone and power sweeps and sprint him to not only get the ball on parameter but also on the inside,” says Holliday.
Bazzie says just from watching a little film it is evident the Owls want the ball in Johnson’s hands and there’s no doubt why.
“He’s athletic. As much as I’d like to look at him as a quarterback you just have to treat him as an athlete out there,” says Bazzie.
RaShawde Myers doesn’t even look at Johnson as a quarterback like most weeks.
“He’s a running back to us,” says defensive end RaShawde Myers. “We’ve got make sure he doesn’t find any rush lanes.”
Johnson is the main focus of the offense but he certainly has other weapons. Jonathan Wallace is back at tailback and is the team’s leading rusher from a season ago. William Dukes will line up out wide and DeAndre Richardson is back from a severe ankle break he suffered in the spring of 2012. He led the Owls in catches in 2011. Daniel McKinney will line up in the slot.
Doc Holliday knows the Owls are chalked full of athletes. How does he know that? Well, there’s a reason he’s been recruiting players out of the state of Florida all these years.
“They’re right in the middle of all those players. They can draw a circle around their campus for about an hour and get all the players they need to win a championship. If they don’t have players that’s their fault because I know they’re all around them.”