Derek Redd: Herd 'D' shows signs of maturity
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The Marshall defense came off the field late in the second quarter of its game versus Miami University the victim of its second big play of the game, a 47-yard completion from Austin Boucher to Rokeem Williams that put the RedHawks in Marshall's red zone and led to a touchdown that tied the game at 14-14.
Marshall's defense allowing the more-than-occasional big play was nothing new following last year's nightmarish season. The Herd allowed 31 plays of 30 yards or more through 12 games of 2012. So when that 47-yarder, and a 45-yard first-quarter strike from Boucher to Dawan Scott, popped up against Marshall last Saturday, no one could have been blamed for wondering if the new Herd 'D' could shake old habits.
After the second touchdown, senior defensive end Jeremiah Taylor walked the sideline ready to offer encouraging words to any fellow defender whose shoulders had slumped in disappointment. There were times last year, he later admitted, that those big plays began to wear on the defense's psyche. When an opponent struck for a long gain, that here-we-go-again feeling would return.
Yet as he approached the players during the tense moments of that Miami game, he found the rah-rah speeches weren't necessary.
"Guys were on the sidelines calm, cool and collected," he said. "I was going around to make sure everyone was OK, but they already had that mindset of, hey, we're good. It's just a busted coverage and a good play by that kid."
After a halftime to regroup, the Herd defense pummeled Miami on its way to a 52-14 Marshall win. After an effective first half, the RedHawks were shut out in the second, only able to muster 55 yards in total offense.
New defensive coordinator Chuck Heater has introduced plenty of fresh concepts to his unit since he arrived in January. He's added a corner to the base defense and subtracted a bunch of verbiage from the defensive calls. Yet the biggest change to the defense might not be found printed in a game plan.
At least its first game, the 2013 Marshall defense had changed its attitude. Giving up a big play in the first half doesn't doom the team for the rest of the game. One missed tackle or assignment shouldn't throw the defense into despair.
The group was helped, in part, by the coaches' insistence that the Herd defense face harsh game conditions in practice. Taylor said Heater and the rest of the defensive staff would put the players in the worst possible positions against one of the best offenses in the country, the Herd's own. They figured solving those conundrums against Rakeem Cato, Tommy Shuler and the rest would make doing the same against another opponent fairly simple.
"I feel like, if you do it in practice, you'll do it in games," Taylor said. "We were able to go out there and do it against our offense, and we feel confidence we'll be able to do it against anybody.
"It's something that we did last year, but we didn't emphasize it enough," he added. "This year, I feel like the coaches have done a great job of getting everybody in that mindset that we have trained for this and we do this every day. So there should be no reason we can't go out there and stop them."
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday had stressed before last Saturday's game that it was how the team handled tough times that would define it. The old adage of a defense needing a short memory had to ring true in the Herd's locker room. Holliday felt last Saturday was a good start.
"I think our kids have done a great job at playing the next play and not looking back and overcoming adversity," Holliday said. "We tell them to go play as hard as you can play. Don't look at the scoreboard. At the end of the day, we'll look up and see where we are."
The Herd defense could look at the scoreboard and the stat sheet after last game and feel pretty good about what it saw - numbers that showed the 2013 edition wouldn't shrink from hardship, that it could bounce back from allowing a big gain and play even better in its wake.
That is now what Taylor sees when he walks the sideline, teammates able to shrug off misfortune rather than allow the burden to weigh on their shoulders. Greater tests lie ahead in places like Athens, Ohio, Tulsa, Okla., and Blacksburg, Va., so only time will tell if the Marshall defense's new attitude remains strong against stronger competition.
But for now, Taylor is happy he can save his motivational speeches for another day. There's no need to lift an army of low spirits - and not fighting that battle off the field puts Marshall's defense a lot closer to winning the battles on it.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.