Coal Bowl: WVU running game surprises Herd
MORGANTOWN -- Alex Bazzie's lips pursed as he remembered four quarters of football he'd like to forget - West Virginia University slamming the door on the Friends of Coal Bowl series with its 69-34 win.
The Marshall defensive end knew his unit had to prepare for one part of WVU's offensive onslaught. After all, when quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are lining up across from you, ignoring the pass is fatal.
But the other part? The running back duo of Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie? That knocked him for a bit of a loop.
"It was a surprise," he said. "We weren't quite sure they were going to have the running game going. We thought it was going to be more of a passing game, but it turned out to be a running situation."
It turned out to be a situation of both.
The Mountaineers gashed Marshall for 331 yards rushing and 324 yards passing and left the Thundering Herd lamenting a pile of missed tackles and big plays allowed.
The missed tackles grated on Marshall Coach Doc Holliday. They turned small gains into big gains and big gains into touchdowns. As an indication of WVU's ability to break Marshall tackles, three of the Herd's five leading tacklers were defensive backs - safety Dominick LeGrande, safety Okechukwu Okoroha and corner Derrick Thomas. When Marshall defenders finally did bring WVU ball-carriers down, they'd already made it deep into the defense.
"Our goal is to have single-digit missed tackles," Holliday said. "We probably didn't have that in the first quarter."
Outside of backup quarterback Paul Millard, thrown into the game in the fourth quarter with the Mountaineers up by six touchdowns, no WVU runner averaged fewer than 7.7 yards a carry. Alston averaged 7.7 in pounding out 123 yards. Buie darted for 80 yards and 13.3 per carry. Austin averaged 22 yards a carry, gaining 66 overall. Even Smith rushed for 65 yards, averaging 8.1 a carry.
Smith's performance on the ground didn't surprise LeGrande.
"I knew he'd do something like that if he got into trouble, like a good quarterback would do," he said. "I've seen him on film. He'll run if he's got some pressure on him."
But the Herd got no pressure on Smith. The defense never sacked him and never even recorded a quarterback hurry. With all that time, he was able to complete 32 of 36 passes for 323 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
In all, it led to a nightmare 60 minutes - and a 60 minutes that has come more often recently than the Herd would like. Marshall has allowed more than 600 yards four times since 2009. Three of those have come in the last seven games. Prior to Saturday's 655-yard day from WVU, the Herd gave up 621 yards in a 63-28 loss to Houston on Oct. 22 and 682 yards in a 59-17 loss to Tulsa on Nov. 12. They gave up the most points in a game since WVU scored 81 on Oct. 20, 1933.
"We just have to get better," Holliday said. "You have to tackle better. You've got to get off blocks better."
This Saturday offers Marshall an opponent that should help the defense recover. Western Carolina beat Mars Hill College 42-14 on Friday, but the Division II school was the Catamounts' only win in 2011. When WCU played its only Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, it lost 63-21 at Georgia Tech.
LeGrande is new to the Herd, but the Boston College transfer is a senior and has played in his share of tough losses. His message to the rest of the defense is to learn from its dismal performance against WVU, but not let it eat away at them. It's the only way, he said, for Marshall's defense to rebound.
"All we've got is work," LeGrande said. "That's my favorite line. Whether it's a win or a loss, all we have to go back to is work. We've got to come together. There's a lot of work ahead of us. We'll be better."