Marshall football: Herd faces aggressive Middle Tennessee defense
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- There are some numbers in reference to Middle Tennessee State University's defense that aren't very flattering.
But other numbers catch the eyes of the Marshall University offense as the Thundering Herd prepares for its visit to the Blue Raiders at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Fox Sports 1). Those statistics show MTSU is capable of some momentum-shifting, game-changing plays.
First, the bad for the Blue Raiders defense: MTSU is 12th in the 14-team Conference USA in total defense (450.4 yards allowed per game), 12th in rushing defense (195.4 yapg), 10th in pass defense (255.0 yapg) and eighth in scoring defense (29.9 points allowed per game).
Now for the good: MTSU is one of the best teams in C-USA in sacks and one of the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision in forcing turnovers. The Blue Raiders are tied for second in the conference with Tulane with 18 sacks in seven games, a mark that ties the team for 30th in the FBS. They're tied with four teams for second in the FBS with 20 turnovers gained, 10 interceptions and 10 fumbles recovered.
Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg said the secret in MTSU's efficacy in those departments is diversity in defensive schemes that give offenses so much to prepare for.
"They might be the most diverse defense we've seen on film this year," Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg said. "We pretty much knew what we were getting in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5. It was going to come down to can we execute enough in order to be successful. This (MTSU) group more so than any group ... they play five different defensive personnel packages and out of each of those five defensive personnel packages, they have anywhere from three to five blitz concepts that they do.
"But, you can't just prepare for the three they run out of their base defense," he continued. "You have to prepare for the 15 to 25 blitz combinations you're going to get and you have to do it out of the five packages they're using. That diversity creates confusion. That confusion creates poor decision making, and poor decisions create turnovers and/or sacks."
MTSU Coach Rick Stockstill said the turnovers come from a mindset preached since he first led the Blue Raiders, and it worked last year. As members of the Sun Belt in 2012, Middle Tennessee tied for 22nd in the FBS with 28 total turnovers gained, 16 fumbles and 12 interceptions. The sack production, however, is a different story.
The Blue Raiders recorded just 14 sacks in 12 games last season. Here, Stockstill said, is where the team's defensive diversity has helped most. Eleven players on MTSU's defense have at least assisted on a sack and three players - sophomore linebacker T.T. Barber, redshirt junior Leighton Gasque and redshirt senior Dearco Nolan - have recorded three each.
"Last year, our sacks came from our front seven guys," Stockstill said. "This year, we've got probably three sacks from the corner position, one or two from the safety position, some from the linebackers and the front guys.
"We've been a little bit more multiple in what we've done defensively, because we are a year older and I think that's played a factor."
Nolan, a team captain in two of MTSU's first seven games, said effective communication has been the key to success in those categories.
"Everybody being on the same page allows us to do multiple things - three-down fronts, four-down fronts," he said. "Basically, if we all stay communication, we can fly around and make plays and it's really effortless, you know, because we're not thinking about it."
Yet it's something the Herd definitely must think about. As successful as Marshall has been this season, sacks and turnovers are two areas in need of polishing. The Herd is sixth in the conference, yet tied for 91st in the FBS in sacks allowed (2.5 per game) and tied for sixth in C-USA and 59th in the FBS with 11 turnovers lost.
So Marshall's offensive players must communicate effectively themselves, redshirt junior center Chris Jasperse said.
"They'll bring people from somewhere we're not used to seeing it," he said. "Sometimes they won't show they're going to bring it, and that's a change for us. We just have just have to have our eyes up, everyone looking around and communicating."
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.