Marshall football: Herd turns defense around in win
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- No one had Marshall's defense to kick around Saturday night, especially not Southern Mississippi.
For the first six games of the season, the Thundering Herd defense had been bruised and battered, both by opposing offenses and by criticism from the outside.
Against the Golden Eagles, it was Marshall that did the bruising and battering.
The Herd piled up turnovers and attacked Southern Miss quarterbacks, stifling the Golden Eagles' defense for the majority of Marshall's 59-24 win at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Marshall (3-4, 2-1 Conference USA) snapped a two-game losing streak thanks in large part to a defense that accomplished goals it couldn't reach in this season's first half.
By the time Marshall entered its bye week, its defense was ranked last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in points allowed and was growing weary of answering the questions about how the unit could turn things around.
"I had to stop reading the newspaper for a couple of weeks," defensive lineman Brandon Sparrow said.
Sparrow led the defensive charge, sacking quarterback Anthony Alford twice and notching another tackle for loss. Marshall's defense sacked Alford three times in all, its first multi-sack game of the season.
The Herd also scored its first multi-turnover game of the year. Monterius Lovett intercepted a pass and Marshall also recovered two fumbles.
The first came at the start of the second quarter, when Alford let a shotgun snap bounce off his facemask and Jermaine Holmes recovered. The second came near the end of the third quarter, with Southern Miss driving in Marshall's red zone.
Billy Mitchell, playing for the first time this season after recovering from a concussion, stripped Southern Miss running back Tyre Bracken as he was closing in on the goal line.
The ball bounced into MU's end zone and Armonze Daniel recovered for a touchback.
Three USM quarterbacks - Alford, Ricky Lloyd and Arsenio Favor - combined for 115 yards and an interception on 17-of-33 passing. Of the Golden Eagles' 24 points, one came on a touchdown against the first-team defense, Desmond Johnson's 22-yard second-quarter run. Another came when USM's Kalan Reed intercepted a Rakeem Cato pass and returned it 19 yards for a score. Then Favors added a 12-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter with the game firmly in hand.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said the key to the defense's turnaround was simple.
"I think they just played," he said. "I saw a defense out there tonight that was running well and swarmed extremely hard to the ball. Guys were just making plays. I think, too, you're starting to see that defense settle in a little bit. Now they've gotten some games under their belt. All those guys are, for the first time, starting to feel comfortable with what they're doing. "
The defense's energy was infectious. Marshall's offense rolled to its best yardage output of 2012, gaining 629 yards against the Golden Eagles (0-7, 0-3). Cato threw for 340 yards, three touchdowns and the interception on 31-of-42 passing. Two touchdowns went to receiver Tommy Shuler, who caught 11 passes for 111 yards. Running back Kevin Grooms led the Herd with 119 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
As the offense was rolling, Grooms said the players made it a point to recognize the defense's contributions as many times as they could.
"Every possession, we went over and shook their hand," he said. "We wanted to make sure we acknowledged that we loved what they were doing. They gave us momentum, knowing we had to go out and put up points for them."
Marshall's defense wants to ensure that its performance Saturday was more than a one-time deal. The unit must bear down again this coming Saturday, when Marshall hosts Central Florida in a crucial conference matchup. The Knights (5-2, 3-0) leads the C-USA's East Division and are just one of two teams, Tulsa being the other, who are undefeated in conference play.
Marshall has not beaten UCF since 2004, a streak of seven straight losses to the Knights.
In essence, all Marshall's conference matchups will be crucial the rest of this season. If the Herd wants a berth in the Conference USA title game, it probably will need to win out. If it wants another bowl berth, Marshall needs to win at least three more games.
Holliday figured Marshall's defensive triumphs against the Eagles would serve as a launching pad for the rest of the season, especially Saturday.
"I don't think there's any question that the confidence that the defense will have out of this game is going to help them," he said. "They're feeling pretty good about themselves right now with the way they tackled, the way they swarmed to the ball and the way they played. I think there's no doubt that we'll see a confidence level we haven't seen in the last four or five weeks."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.