Marshall football: O’Leary, UCF like to stay grounded
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- As far as Central Florida Coach George O'Leary is concerned, the rest of Conference USA can spread their offenses as wide as they like. They can talk tempo until the cows come home.
The Knights (5-2, 3-0) will stay grounded. They'll stick with the pro-style offense that has earned them two C-USA titles and four bowl berths since O'Leary took over the team in 2004.
It's an offense that Marshall (3-4, 2-1) will have to switch gears to face when the Knights visit at 8 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network).
Some Conference USA teams, Marshall included, love breaking the 90-play barrier each game and throwing the ball all over the lot. UCF stays around 68 plays a game and employs a trio of big, powerful running backs.
Two of those running backs - 6-foot-3, 222-pound fifth-year senior Latavius Murray and 6-1, 209-pound fifth-year senior Brynn Harvey - are among the Knights' top 10 career rushers, Harvey at fifth (2,353 yards) and Murray at ninth (1,700 yards).
The third, 6-1, 216-pound Storm Johnson, is a Miami transfer who leads UCF with 416 rushing yards.
UCF's running backs fit more of the mold of bruisers like Eddie George than mighty mites like former WVU star Noel Devine, Herd safety Okechukwu Okoroha said.
"I feel like they like the big-type of running backs over there, especially when they run the I-formation," he said. "The funny thing about it is one will go out and the next one will come in and they look the same. You really can't tell the difference between all of them."
The Knights are a bit of an anomaly in the grip-it-and-rip-it Conference USA, where spread offenses are more the norm. Even Tulsa, which is one of the nation's best rushing offenses, runs the ball out of a spread look. UCF keeps it conventional.
"In Conference USA, you're used to speed and spreading out your guys," defensive end Alex Bazzie said.
"(UCF is) more of let's run the ball and play smash-mouth football. They've got something of a Big Ten concept and they're bringing that into Conference USA, so it's very different."
If the Knights have a Big Ten vibe, then it's fortunate the Thundering Herd lined up against a Big Ten team this year at Purdue, Bazzie said. The Boilermakers featured a beefy offensive line and devotion to the ground game. Facing Tulsa's running back trio helped as well.
While UCF's offensive style isn't common in C-USA, it's not a style that's a total mystery to Marshall's defense. Coach Doc Holliday said the team practices against pro-set looks throughout the year.
"This isn't the first week since camp they've seen ... power football," he said. "They've seen that throughout the year, because at some point you've got to be able to stop it. This is one of those weeks where you have to line up and buckle your chinstrap and get physical, because that's the type of game it's going to be."
So preparing for UCF's offensive style isn't about the defense flipping the switch on its mindset, linebacker Billy Mitchell said.
"It's more getting ready physically for a great game that we're looking forward to," Mitchell said. "Ever since high school, I've loved the physical game."
The rest of Marshall's defense digs it, too, Bazzie said. The Herd has had its issues against the run this year, allowing more than 227 yards on the ground per game. Yet the Herd's spirits are high following its 59-24 win over Southern Mississippi, which featured the defense's best performance of the season, giving up 331 yards, snatching three turnovers and notching three sacks.
The defense hopes that momentum carries over into this Saturday. Bazzie said defensive coordinator Chris Rippon has pounded it in their brains that they must match UCF's physicality.
"Coach Rip is an old-school coach," Bazzie said. "He loves that type of game. That's his type of game and he brought that upon us. We like the physical ground game. I feel like, with them running the ball and us putting so much emphasis on stopping the run, that's going to be something we're going to be excited about."
In the end, O'Leary said, it doesn't matter what offense a team runs. It all comes down to whether the offensive line can block for it and the defense can tackle it. A win over UCF would be the Herd's first in eight tries and catapult the Herd among the leaders of C-USA's East Division. Sure tackling is essential when facing the Knights, Okoroha said.
"That's what (O'Leary) likes," Okoroha said. "That's what he believes in. That's what he thinks works and, so far, it's been working for him. It's going to be a physical game, because that's what they like to do. They try to pound the ball and we just have to meet them there."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.