Marshall football: Knights tasked with slowing Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Central Florida defensive lineman Victor Gray is pretty direct when he evaluates Marshall's offense.
"This is probably the best offense we've faced all year," he said.
The numbers don't lie. None of UCF's first seven opponents come within 100 yards of the Thundering Herd's average of 568.43 yards per game. Only unbeaten Ohio State at 39 points per game comes within 13 points of the Marshall's 43.13 per game.
The Knights (5-2, 3-0) enter a crucial Conference USA matchup in Huntington against Marshall (3-4, 2-1) at 8 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network) with the task of slowing down a Herd offense that no opponent has impeded this season.
To do it, the Knights need to return to their usual standards on defense, Gray said.
UCF has won its last two games - 38-31 in double overtime over Southern Mississippi and 35-17 over Memphis - but Gray doesn't feel the defense has lived up to its potential.
Gray said missed tackles and missed assignments have cropped up more than he likes.
"I know we're 5-2, but some of those wins feel like losses when you're out there not executing what the coaches are calling and doing your job," said Gray, a 6-foot-4, 267-pound redshirt junior tied for the team lead with 6 1/2 tackles for loss. "You don't want to win and it feel like a loss.
"We have to get more hats to the ball. There's no sense in just one person making the tackle. You need 11 people to the ball, and that's how you make a tackle."
Still, the Knights remain C-USA's top defense, allowing a conference-low 352.9 yards and 22 points per game. They've been extremely effective against the pass, allowing just six touchdowns and an average of just 200.9 yards through the air.
Holding Marshall to those averages won't be easy. The Herd thrives in the air, with its quarterbacks throwing for a C-USA-best 2,730 yards and 22 touchdowns.
UCF Coach George O'Leary has been impressed with the maturation of Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato. The sophomore struggled against the Knights last year in an Orlando downpour, throwing for just 87 yards.
This year, the Herd quarterback is the most prolific passer in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 2,651 yards and 21 touchdowns.
The veteran coach said where Cato has improved the most is that he's no longer holding onto the ball and waiting for the perfect play, releasing the ball much quicker.
"He's done a great job of knowing where the receivers are going to be and throwing before they even break," O'Leary said. "He's really progressed in that area, as far as understanding what the coverages give him and understanding the weaknesses of the coverages."
And while the running game may get overshadowed by the Herd's stunning passing numbers, O'Leary said it's foolish to ignore it. The freshman running back trio of Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson are leading Marshall to its best rushing numbers since Coach Doc Holliday arrived, averaging 178.4 yards per game.
O'Leary said Marshall's passing game is so explosive because its running game has improved so much.
"I think all three running backs are all good cutback runners," he said. "They plant the foot and get north-south quickly. That's what spreads the field. I think if you just had to defend the passing attack, it's difficult, but it's not as difficult as when you have to defend the running game with it."
Saturday's game pits the conference's best on one side of the ball against its best on the other side. Gray said it's crucial that the defense rebounds and play like the best versus the Herd. UCF, he added, is up to the challenge.
"We're very excited, but you don't want to circle one game and say you're excited for this game," Gray said. "You want to treat every game like that. But, seeing as how our defense the last two weeks hasn't played up to par, we need to step it up. This is a good point for us to turn it around."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.