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Chuck McGill: Stats tell a story for improved Marshall defense

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Visiting Conference USA football newcomer UTSA put points on the scoreboard on two of 12 possessions against Marshall on Saturday.

So why, then, did one of those scoring "drives" elate first-year Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater?

Marshall had forced two interceptions and five consecutive punts before the Roadrunners' offense broke through. Heater pointed to that drive -- not the first seven -- as "good ball" by his defense.

"Coach Heater is always tough on us about sudden change," Marshall defensive back A.J. Leggett said after Marshall's 34-10 win over Larry Coker-coached UTSA. "We knew what we had to do."

The sudden change came after MU quarterback Rakeem Cato was blindsided on a sack. He fumbled and UTSA took over at the 11-yard line. The defense was put in a precarious spot, one that probably would've resulted in an easy touchdown for the opposition last season.

UTSA, however, ran six plays. The only time it moved toward the goalline was on a defensive holding penalty in the end zone on third down, which gave the Roadrunners a first down and the defense another wave of adversity, this time inside the 10.

No big deal. Three more incomplete passes followed. UTSA settled for a field goal.

"That's good ball," Heater said. "We think we've got good attitude; we think we've got good toughness and competitiveness. We feel we have that on this team and that's a good thing."

Indeed. And Heater is the architect of a defense that has climbed from No. 103 in total defense last season to No. 8 this season.

"Stats," fourth-year Coach Doc Holliday said, "they do mean something. Just look at the stats. It pretty much speaks for itself."

OK, let's:

  • Marshall had three interceptions against UTSA on Saturday. It is the second two-INT game this season after the Herd had just one all of last season.
  • Heater's defense has nine interceptions through five games this season, already equaling last season's total for the entire season (12 games).
  • On Saturday, the Herd defense allowed 4.03 yards per play. It is the second-fewest yards per play allowed by an FBS opponent in the four-year Doc Holliday era (Memphis averaged 3.79 yards per play in Marshall's 23-22 win in 2011).
  • Marshall is tied for fifth nationally in average yards per play allowed. The Herd is tied with Louisville and trails Michigan State, Florida, Washington and Virginia Tech.
  • MU is the only non-BCS team in the top 20 in total defense, and it is the only defense that ranked in the bottom 20 nationally in total defense in 2012 that is now in the top 20 in the same category this season.
  • Opponents are 6 for 30 on third-down conversions the past two games (at Virginia Tech and vs. UTSA). That is a span of eight 15-minute quarters and three overtimes. The Roadrunners were 4 of 14 and averaged 2.85 yards per play on third down.
  • Marshall's defense is No. 16 nationally in third down conversions (22 of 75, 29.33 percent). Again, the Herd is the only non-BCS team in the top 20.
  • Last season, every opponent had at least five third-down conversions in a game. This season, only Ohio has reached that number.
  • "It's a little bit like our offense from two years ago to last year, the improvement it made," said Holliday, who improved to 20-22 overall.

    "I thought our defense would be better, No. 1, because I think we got better players. There's some new guys playing that didn't play a year ago ... we're so much further along defensively."

    That bodes well for Marshall (3-2, 1-0) in a league where defense has historically risen about offense, no matter how stellar.

    The past six C-USA title game winners ranked in the top three in the league in total defense. In all six games, the conference championship game winner had a higher ranked defense than its opposition, including 2010 and 2012 when C-USA's top two defenses clashed for the title.

    Houston had one of the nation's top five offenses four times in the last six seasons, but only reached the title game once (2009, when the Cougars lost to Southern Miss).

    It is all about defense and dealing with adversity. The Herd had plenty of the former and little of the latter in its first conference test, but that six-play sequence that ended with a field goal provided enough of a glimpse of how this team can handle a tough spot.

    "That's a little window into the soul of who they are," Heater said.

    Conference USA opponents can't feel good about what they see.


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