Marshall football: Shutout a long time coming for Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The last time a Marshall defense did what it did Saturday night to Gardner-Webb, the oldest of the current crop was suiting up for their respective middle schools. The youngest still were scampering around in Pop Warner.
It had been just about two months shy of 10 full years since a Marshall team shut out an opponent. One hundred and eleven games later, the Thundering Herd tossed another goose egg on the scoreboard, beating Football Championship Subdivision foe Gardner-Webb, 55-0. The win gave Marshall its first 2-0 start since its undefeated 1999 season.
"It feels really good," said senior corner Monterius Lovett, whose 70-interception return for a touchdown was one of three Herd interceptions and six turnovers forced against the Runnin' Bulldogs. "That tells us something about the defense. I've got to give all the credit to Coach Heater. He's a great coach, coaches us well and is all about technique. He puts us in the right position and calls the right plays."
The Herd's defensive turnaround has been drastic. After finishing last season ranked 101st in total defense (456.58 yards allowed per game) and 119th in scoring defense (43.08 points per game), Marshall has started this season tied for seventh in total defense (211.5 ypg) and tied for ninth in scoring defense (7.0 ppg). Gardner-Webb could gain just 184 total yards versus the Herd - 67 rushing yards on 44 carries and 117 yards on 9-for-20 passing.
Marshall's first shutout since blanking Ohio, 28-0, on Nov. 28, 2003, came thanks in large part to a huge jump in both sack and turnover production, two categories in which the Herd struggled last season and didn't excel last week against Miami University. The Herd tied for 87th last season in both sacks (19.0) and turnovers gained (18) and recorded just one sack and one turnover against the RedHawks. Against Gardner-Webb, Marshall recovered three fumbles on top of its three picks and recorded six sacks.
Herd Coach Doc Holliday said a lot of that has to do with some of the new names on the 2013 depth chart.
Three turnovers and 3.5 sacks against the Bulldogs came from defenders who did not play a down for Marshall last season.
"I think we have about 14 different faces out there making those plays," he said. "There are a lot of new faces out there and the coaches have done a great job of coaching them up. When you play extremely hard, good things will happen to you. Those guys played hard out there tonight and that's good to see."
Steve Dillon, a sophomore who made his first career start after recording just six tackles last season, said youth and inexperience at some positions played a significant part in Marshall's 2012 defensive troubles. He played 11 games last season as a first-year defender, as did Jarquez Samuel. D.J. Hunter played in 12 and started 11 as a freshman, while Evan McKelvey played in three before a season-ending knee injury.
Now players like those are older and wiser and have a clearer understanding of the game, Dillon said.
"Last year, we were really young, especially on the line," Dillon said. "That one year helped out a lot with what to expect and how the game experience is. Everybody on the defense just knows what to expect. That's why we're dominating so far."
Lovett's pick-six, coming after Raheem Waiters' pick-six against Miami, marked the first time since 2006 that Marshall returned interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games. Lovett said the sacks and the turnovers aren't mutually exclusive events. The pressure Marshall's defensive front puts on the opponent - the Herd had six quarterback hurries with its six sacks - allows the secondary to play more man-to-man coverage and forces opposing quarterbacks to make bad throws.
"Last year we were playing a lot of zone and they were catching short routes, but we had to play the call," Lovett said. "This year it's a lot of press and we're up in their face. It all starts with technique from the line. That's helping out a whole lot. As long as the defensive line keeps bringing the pressure, we can play man all day."
As dominant has Marshall has been, much tougher competition is right around the corner. The Herd visits Ohio at 8 p.m. Saturday on ESPNews in another "Battle for the Bell." The Bobcats have taken the last two games from the Herd, including last season's 27-24 win in Huntington. And Ohio should provide a much more difficult test than the FCS Bulldogs and a Miami team that gained just 122 yards and couldn't score an offensive touchdown against Kentucky this past weekend.
Lovett said the Herd is ready for the next step in the schedule and the step up in opponent's skill.
"Coach said Chapter Two is closed," he said. "Now we worry about Ohio. Ohio beat us for the past two years and I'm going in with a chip on my shoulder. This is my last year, so I'm going to go in, play hard and give everything I've got."
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.