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Chuck McGill: Defense helps take load off MU offense

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- These are the kind of defensive numbers that can tickle an offensive coordinator like Bill Legg.

The Marshall University defense hasn't allowed a point in 91 minutes and 48 seconds of game action. The longest span last season the Herd went without allowing a touchdown or field goal was 43:04, from early in the fourth quarter of a loss at West Virginia to halftime the next week in a win over Western Carolina.

In fact, the Herd defense only held a team scoreless in six quarters all of last season. It takes a six-quarter scoreless streak into this Saturday night's 8 o'clock non-conference game at Ohio University.

Legg is a coach who appreciates how the offense and defense can work in concert.

"It's always been a team game," Legg said in a phone interview this week. "It's been a little back and forth since we got here. First we had older guys on defense and we totally revamped the offense. We get better on offense and all the guys on defense graduate. Now we're in position where we have experience on both sides of the ball and depth on both sides of the ball."

Marshall is off to a 2-0 start for the first time since its undefeated 1999 season, and fourth-year Coach Doc Holliday's team is among the top 15 teams nationally in total offense (15th) and total defense (seventh). Only Wisconsin can make the same claim.

The weaknesses Ohio exploited in that 37-point rout two seasons ago appear to be gone.

The Bobcats scored 44 in the 2011 "Battle for the Bell," but the offense contributed mightily to that. Ohio started three drives on the Herd's side of the field in the first half and another at midfield as turnovers and miscues placed the MU defense in precarious positions.

Ohio's defense feasted on Marshall's youth. Legg had a true freshman quarterback (Rakeem Cato) throw a career-high four interceptions, including three in the first quarter on just five passes. The Herd was led in rushing by a sophomore and a freshman. Of the eight players who caught a pass, six were freshmen or sophomores.

They're neophytes no more.

Among the youngsters who started against Ohio two seasons ago, offensive guard Garrett Scott has 23 starts under his belt and center Chris Jasperse has 27. Cato will take the first snap this Saturday for the 28th time in his collegiate career, and tight end Gator Hoskins has started 22 games.

That quartet - among many others - helped Marshall become a top 10 offense last season, but the team had a bottom 10 scoring defense.

One side wasn't helping the other, like the 2011 "Battle for the Bell."

"Two years ago we walked into that with a lot of young guys on the offensive side of the ball and a true freshman at maybe the most critical position on offense," Legg said. "You look at our starters now and they were starters then. We've got a lot of kids who were starting two years ago and they were young and inexperienced and we were trying to run as much as they could handle without putting them in overload.

"What's happened is they've been around the program and as a result they've gotten physically more mature, they understand the system better, they understand how the pieces fit together. We can do more than we could two years ago because of the natural transformation that goes on from being an 18-year-old freshman to a 20- or 21-year-old junior."

Cato, who was 19 when he last visited Peden, had four interceptions in 21 pass attempts against the Bobcats in 2011 - that means he threw a pick on 19 percent of his throws.

Cato has only had a multi-interception game three times in 24 games since. In that span he has thrown 866 passes with 17 interceptions - that's an interception rate of slightly less than two percent.

"It's maturity in the simplest form," said Legg, who estimated he can call twice as many plays with Cato at the helm today than two seasons ago. "The call sheets can be a lot more in-depth and the call sheets can have more flexibility. We can change it from Week 1 to Week 2 and it's not an issue."

It helps that Legg has experience for this year's trip to Athens, where the Herd will be trying to prevent its first three-game losing streak in the series since 1978-80.

Consider the green Thundering Herd of 2011 compared to this year's bunch.

All eight players who've carried the ball this season are three seasons removed from high school. Both passers - Cato and backup Blake Frohnapfel - are in their third seasons at Marshall (Frohnapfel redshirted while Cato played as a true freshman). Fifteen players have caught a pass this season, but 13 of them are redshirt sophomores, juniors or seniors.

Legg has a playcaller's coveted combination of experience on offense and the comfort of a defense.

He should be tickled.

Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@daily or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.



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