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."
"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.