Marshall football: Herd 'D' stepped up against Miami
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall center Chris Jasperse was a happy giant following his football team's season opening win over Miami University. He had every right to be.
The 6-foot-4, 289-pound redshirt junior's offense was its usual self, steamrolling the RedHawks for 591 yards in a convincing 52-14 win. It was the first season-opening victory for the Thundering Herd since beating Southern Illinois to open the 2009 campaign, and the first season-opening win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since winning at Clemson to start 1999.
But when asked how fun it was, Jasperse's first words were for the Herd players on the other side of the ball.
"It's good to go out there and see your defense play the way they did tonight," he said. "It was awesome to see them go out there and get all those stops."
After spending the 2012 season as one of the nation's most maligned units, Marshall's defense used a nearly flawless second half to dominate Miami and offer a first glimpse of how much the group has improved since last year.
It's true that the RedHawks didn't enter Saturday's game with the reputation as an offensive juggernaut. Miami finished 2012 ranked 75th in total offense (385.3 yards per game) and 90th in scoring offense (23.3 points per game). But the 2012 Herd defense had been known to make bad teams look better. It gave up 38 points in a loss to UAB, which finished its season at 3-9. It allowed 41 points in a win over Houston, which finished last season 5-7.
On Saturday, it looked like, in the first half, the RedHawks might be able to stay within striking distance with the occasional big play. Miami got big gains on both of its scoring drives. RedHawks quarterback Austin Boucher found receiver Dawan Scott for a 45-yard reception on the first touchdown drive, then hit Rokeem Williams for a 47-yard gain on the second.
At halftime, those two plays made up half the 184 yards the Herd had allowed. And while those numbers might not have been spectacular, they were an improvement from last year's defense, which allowed 456.8 yards and 43.1 points per game.
Once Marshall emerged from the locker room to start the third quarter, its defense went from promising to punishing.
The Herd allowed just 55 yards for the rest of the game and pitched a second-half shutout, as Marshall's offense got going and turned a 14-14 halftime tie into a cakewalk. Boucher, who had completed nine of 12 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown at halftime, completed just one of his last 10 and threw an interception that linebacker Raheem Waiters returned 27 yards for a touchdown. Marshall recorded seven tackles for loss for the game, led by linebacker Jermaine Holmes' three, and broke up six passes.
"That's the way you're supposed to play defense," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "(Defensive Coordinator Chuck Heater) and those guys have done a tremendous job with that defense. We've got good players. We've added some faces out there that made some plays today. I think they'll continue to get better as we go along."
One of those new faces was linebacker Neville Hewitt. A junior transfer from Georgia Military College, he started Saturday's game at weak side linebacker and tied Holmes for the team lead with eight tackles, assisting on a tackle for loss.
Hewitt wasn't here for that dreadful defensive season of 2012, but he's spent the preseason working with many players who were there and who were craving the opportunity to change a nation's perceptions of their talent. It was that talent Marshall brought in, both on the coaching staff and on the field, which spurred Hewitt to sign with the Herd. He loved being a part of that turnaround Saturday, especially the way the defense played in the second half.
"We went into the locker room and the offense was talking, saying they were going to come out and they were going to score," Hewitt said. "They came out and did what they said and we felt we had to go out there and do the same thing. (Miami) wouldn't get anything else.
"They got those two big plays and that's all they got," he added. "They shouldn't have even gotten those two plays."
The 239 yards of total offense the Herd allowed Saturday were the fewest it's given up since it held Florida International to 251 yards in its 2011 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl win. That also marked the last time Marshall held an opponent scoreless in the second half. The RedHawks had eight drives of three plays or fewer, converted just two of 13 third downs and neither of its two fourth downs.
Now, Waiters said, the next step is to match that dominance Saturday when the Herd hosts Gardner-Webb at 6:30 p.m.
"It felt awesome, just coming out and going three and out on most of our downs and getting all those stops," Waiters said. "Everybody played great defense and we're going to go out and do it again next week."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.