Marshall football: Defensive experiment slowed Herd in first half
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- University of Alabama at Birmingham football Coach Garrick McGee decided the best way to slow down Marshall's offense was to head back to the drawing board.
The defensive design he came up with stymied the Thundering Herd in the first half and provided the Blazers enough cushion to come away with a 38-31 win on Saturday at Legion Field.
McGee knew the Herd liked to pass. It's no secret at all, as Marshall entered the game ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision averaging 374.33 passing yards per game. So the Blazers dropped eight defenders into coverage and kept just three down linemen.
"We really wanted to make it hard on (Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato) mentally and make him have to figure out what coverages we were in and get him to bounce around," McGee said. "If you give him time to figure out what coverage you're in, he has shown he will tear you apart for 400-plus yards."
UAB's experiment worked for the first two quarters. Cato completed just nine of 13 first-half passes for 53 yards, a total he's attained on single drives this season, and an interception. With the Herd's air attack grounded, the Blazers staked a 24-7 halftime lead. Once Marshall's offense adjusted, however, the game became a different story.
In the second half, Cato finally caught fire. He completed 16 of 21 passes in those two quarters for 163 yards and two touchdowns. In all, he completed 25 of 34 passes for 216 yards. That second half allowed him to break the single-season completions record, previously set by Cato's quarterback coach, Tony Petersen, in 1987. Cato now has 343 to Petersen's 340.
Cato said he wished Marshall would have been more forceful in the passing game earlier in the contest.
"The pass is what got us here, so let's live or die with the pass," he said. "But we fought hard."
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SPECIAL TEAMS haven't been so special in recent weeks, and the Herd kept that dubious streak alive until the second half of Saturday's game.
Jackie Williams' punt return for a touchdown was the first for UAB since the 2007 season, when Kevin Sanders returned a punt against Marshall 58 yards for a score. On UAB's previous drive, an Austin Brown interception spoiled a 42-yard kickoff return by Greg Franklin that started the Blazers out on the 50. Then came the UAB punt block at the end of the first quarter, on which the Blazers capitalized with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Patrick Hearn on the ensuing drive, giving UAB a 21-7 lead.
In the third quarter, the Herd lost yards when Demetrius Evans was flagged for roughing UAB punter Hunter Mullins. That penalty prolonged the Blazers' drive and, while UAB still had to punt, the Herd got the ball on the Blazers' 20, rather than the Blazers' 32 where the original punt was downed.
On top of that, the Herd lost kick/punt returner Andre Snipes-Booker on a kickoff late in the first half. He was on the ground for a while with his helmet off and holding his head. Snipes-Booker missed Marshall's loss to the University of Central Florida with a concussion.
Marshall redeemed itself in the fourth quarter with Brandon Sparrow's punt block that Dominick LeGrande returned to the UAB 29. The Herd turned that into Haig's field goal. Still, that wasn't enough to change Coach Doc Holliday's opinion.
"Awful," he said of Marshall's special teams performance. "We didn't play well there. When you give up a blocked punt and a punt return for a touchdown, it's hard to win a game."
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UAB WON on Saturday, but the Herd made Blazers quarterback Austin Brown earn it.
Marshall defenders picked off Brown three times - one each by Baxter, LeGrande and Jermaine Holmes - and sacked him three times. Brown finished the game completing 20 of 34 passes for 197 yards, two touchdowns and three picks.
Defensive end Jeremiah Taylor, who recorded two of Marshall's three sacks with Jarquez Samuel notching the other, said the plan going into the game was to apply pressure to Brown.
"Coaches told us to just go out there and do what we do, to not worry about losing contain," Taylor said. "The way we studied (Brown), he likes to sit in there. He won't be quick to just run out there. The coaches said, 'Just do what you guys do.'"
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.