Marshall football: Herd's plan to start fast worked against UTSA
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall wide receiver Devon Smith and the rest of the Thundering Herd heard something they didn't like entering Saturday's game against the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Smith said he heard word that the Roadrunners - a team in its first year of Conference USA, second year of Football Bowl Subdivision play and third year as an active football team - said they would try to be more physical than the Herd.
"We weren't about to let that happen," Smith said. "We came in feeling we were going to punch them in the mouth first and drive down the field, drive down the field, and that's what we did."
The Herd's fastest start of the season led it to its first C-USA win of the season, a 34-10 homecoming victory over the Roadrunners that Marshall (3-2, 1-0 C-USA) put away early.
Quick starts haven't been the Herd's calling card so far in 2013. In its first four games, Marshall has been tied or trailed after the first quarter in three. The Herd trailed Miami (Ohio) 7-0, tied Ohio 7-7 and trailed Virginia Tech 14-7 after the first 15 minutes of each game. The only time the team led after the first quarter was 14-0 over Gardner-Webb.
Against the Roadrunners (2-4, 1-1 C-USA), Marshall stormed out to a 17-0 first-quarter lead, and Coach Doc Holliday attributed much of that to the defense.
"We had two turnovers, back-to-back," Holliday said. "We had two interceptions in the first half that gave us great field advantage. We turned one into a touchdown and one into three points."
UTSA's first two drives of the game lasted a total of nine plays and both ended with Marshall interceptions.
The first drive lasted three plays until defensive end Alex Bazzie batted an Eric Soza pass and linebacker Evan McKelvey pulled it down for the pick he returned 13 yards to the Roadrunners 42. Marshall's offense turned that into a 33-yard Justin Haig field goal.
The second drive went six plays, but that time it was defensive end Gary Thompson who swatted Soza's pass for end Ra'Shawde Myers to intercept at the UTSA 38. The Herd got a touchdown on the next drive after quarterback Rakeem Cato found tight end Devon Johnson for a 17-yard score.
Marshall linebacker Stefan Houston, who led the Herd with eight tackles and 1.5 for a loss, said the coaches preached a fast start to the UTSA game the entire time they prepared for the Roadrunners. Early leads the Herd couldn't muster against the Bobcats or Hokies might have changed the complexion of those games if Marshall could have gotten a quick start.
"It was very important just to set the tone, from the start of the game until the end," Houston said. "We had to keep our minds level-headed so we didn't get too confident."
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SMITH RETURNED to form as a punt returner against the Roadrunners. The speedy senior returned two for a total of 55 yards against UTSA. He returned his first attempt 26 yards and his second for 29 yards. On the second, he felt one cut made the difference between a long return and a touchdown.
Smith entered Saturday's game averaging 9.42 yards per punt return on the season. That average jumped to 12 yards a return by the game's end.
"I can't be satisfied with that," Smith said. "I want to be number one. I think we have the talent to do it. I'm going to get as much yardage as I can."
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DEVON JOHNSON moved from fullback to tight end this season and showed flashes during preseason scrimmages that he could flourish in the role. It hadn't translated to the regular season, though, as he caught only one 10-yard pass in the Herd's first four games.
He matched that total with a catch against UTSA, but with the extra garnish of six points. Johnson scored the Herd's first touchdown of the game, a 17-yard pass from quarterback Rakeem Cato.
"Devon Johnson made a play today, and he has to continue to get better and play," Holliday said. "Gator (Hoskins) has been banged up, so Devon played a little bit more today."
Several different players got involved in the Marshall passing game against UTSA. Craig Wilkins returned from injury and caught four passes for 53 yards, Jazz King caught a 40-yard pass and freshman Justin Hunt got some work as well. That's just fine with junior Tommy Shuler. Marshall's leading receiver tied a season low with five catches, but he felt he had more space to work since the defenders had to focus more on his teammates.
"I love it," Shuler said. "The more help, the more teams have to worry about it, so I love it. I'm glad they all got their feet wet in the game, so when they get in crucial spots, we know they can make a big play in the game."
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MARSHALL'S OFFENSIVE LINE already had lost one component when Holliday announced Tuesday that redshirt junior Josh Lovell had left the team. Then guard Grady Kerr and tackle Jordan Jeffries did not dress for the UTSA game due to unspecified injuries.
According to the participation report released after the game, the offensive line depth the Herd enjoyed earlier this season completely disappeared versus the Roadrunners. No lineman outside of the starters played in the game.
Despite that, Holliday felt the group held its own. The Herd gained 404 yards of total offense, though Cato was sacked five times.
"That offensive line, (Coach Alex Mirabal) does a good job with them," Holliday said. "We felt going in that (center Chris) Jasperse and the two guards had a great challenge (with the interior defensive line) because they're extremely physical and hard to knock off the ball. At times, I thought we got that done."
Holliday wasn't sure, however, how long Kerr and Jeffries would be out.
"I don't know," Holliday said. "We'll have to get with the doctors and all that. I worry a little about Jordan."
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.