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Poor tackling, lack of aggressiveness hurt Herd

I HATE the new kickoff rules. But that's not the topic on the tip of Marshall tongues today. It is the Thundering Herd's defense, or lack thereof.

It is the work of coordinator Chris Rippon. It is the lack of a pass rush, horrendous tackling, failure to stop the run and being repeatedly outwitted at the line by a veteran quarterback.

It is the young front line and the young, undersized linebacking corps, which got exposed.

A lot of this you should have expected. But you never expect to give up 655 total yards and 69 points, even from an offense that likely will be the Big 12's best.

Once again, Rippon is under fire from the kelly-green faithful, and that's not unfair.

Saturday was the third time in two seasons the Herd has been raked for 600 or more yards. Last year, the inflicting teams were Houston (621) and Tulsa (682), with Ohio coming disturbingly close at 559.

Only one other time (Virginia Tech, 605 in 2009) has the Herd defense been such a sieve. Not even the 2007 Herd, the program's most outmanned defense of the millennium, was roughed up so badly.

(Poor Andre Snipes-Booker. A large part of what makes him a major threat has been taken away. I hate the new kickoff rules.)

I don't expect Rippon's defense to get abused like that in all 12 games. Counteracting the Ohio, Houston and Tulsa disasters last year were the performances against Southern Mississippi, Louisville and Florida International.  FIU's supposedly high-octane offense was held to 251 total yards and skunked in the final 35:41.

Personally, I thought the four overtime downs against East Carolina were Rippon's finest. The fourth-down chase of ECU's Dominique Davis was almost as much of a highlight as Aaron Dobson's backhanded touchdown catch.

Such aggressiveness was lacking Saturday at Morgantown. In a game in which everyone knew WVU's offensive line had an advantage over Marshall's Vinny Curry-less defensive front, I expected to see a good amount of blitzing, and I think Geno Smith did, too.

But he didn't. He saw vanilla, pass-favoring 4-3, 3-4 and even 3-3-5 formations and checked into runs. With that threat well established and no pass rush to distract him, Smith hit almost everything he threw.

(Just to be straight, kickoffs do NOT contribute to perceived global warming. For the love of Al Gore, I really, really HATE the new kickoff rules.)

Cornerbacks played well off receivers, a little surprising considering an expected shift toward pressing, man-to-man coverage. Then again, you could argue that pressing Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey is a really bad idea.

Then again, it may not have mattered. Smith has become a master of taking whatever the defense gives him, and his receivers turned the Herd's three-man corner rotation inside out.

But I ask: How does the scheme Saturday look if the Herd tackles better?

(I hate the new kickoff rules worse than Morgantown traffic, lima beans and losing at cornhole. Oh, yeah, pooch kickoffs, too.)

This isn't the first season opener in which the Herd tackled like the Stay Puft Marshallow Man. And yes, it makes you wonder what drills the defense did in August.

A review of those fundamentals is in order, but you can't spend two hours Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday pounding each other and bringing running backs to the ground. It's good to build toughness, but it's not good to bring extra sprained ankles, banged-up knees and concussions to a game.

Such is the fine line college coaches walk.

(I realize concussions are a major issue in football, that gigantic "elephant in the room." But I'm not convinced that kickoffs are as much of a culprit as advertised. I dearly hate the new kickoff rules.)

So what will Rippon and his defense do to rectify matters this week, as the Herd faces lightly regarded Western Carolina? And when the Bobcats return to Huntington on Sept. 15?

Marshall needs these two. Not only will a pair of wins make the trip to bowl eligibility a little smoother, they will help Herd fans put that 69-34 score out of their heads.

But I'm afraid winning won't make the new kickoff rules any more palatable. A new day, a new crusade.

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  • Marshall's 2011 season ended with Herd players getting into a near-brawl with those from Florida International, and coaches frantically separating the combatants. The 2012 season started the same way, with Herd and WVU players getting into it.

    Strangely enough, I missed the start of both spats. At the bowl game, I was filing a story on deadline and would have blocked out a nuclear attack. Saturday at Morgantown, I simply wasn't watching.

    What, I should watch for a fight every stinkin' minute players from both teams take the field? Next thing you know, the kicking specialists will duke it out after trying long field goals.

    I'm not sure who to blame in either incident, and I don't care. Here's what I did see clearly in the wee hours Sunday morning: video of a bunch of Marshall players jawing at WVU's Smith. A Fox studio analyst declared it "junior varsity."

    Now, I like a team with an edge, but Herd players must be smarter than that. Cornerback Keith Baxter didn't look too intelligent when he yapped at Austin after running him down on a 70-yard run. Okechukwu Okoroha looked even worse when he gave Shawne Alston's facemask a healthy yank - when Alston was two full strides into the end zone.

    Here's hoping MU coach Doc Holliday gets a handle on this.

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  • Quick quips from the weekend's play elsewhere:

  • So is everybody still ready to hand the Conference USA title to Houston? Texas State won in its FBS debut by thumping the Cougars 30-13.
  • David Piland, hailed as a worthy successor to Case Keenum, went 17-of-44 for 211 yards. Charles Sims had just 13 rushes and a catch. The Coogs converted just one of their 13 third downs.

  • Central Florida rained on Terry Bowden's Akron debut with a 56-14 rout. That leads me to one question: Down 35-0, did Bowden bench his seniors at halftime?
  • (Inside joke. Couldn't resist.)

  • I have it in my head that somebody called Texas-El Paso's Nick Lamaison the best returning quarterback in C-USA. Please tell me I'm hallucinating.
  • In El Paso's Sun Bowl, Los Mineros could have, should have beaten Oklahoma. Nathan Jeffery scored on a blocked punt return and ran wild until cramping up late in the game. The game was tied 7-7 at the half, and the Sooners led just 10-7 after three quarters.

    Believe it or not, the 30-point underdogs were outplaying mighty Oklahoma in many areas. But not at quarterback, because Lamaison was truly awful.

    He went 6-of-23 despite getting good protection and open receivers. He clanked nine straight at one point, and most of his throws weren't even close to their targets.

    Oklahoma scratched out a 24-7 win in the fourth quarter, but I'm thinking Marshall has three quarterbacks who could have swung that result the other way.

  • Howard Schnellenberger still has a way with words. In his first year of retirement after his 14-year tenure at Florida Atlantic, he put a brave face on FAU's snub by C-USA, which instead took in rival FIU.
  • "This is the hottest thing going," he told USA Today. "We've got the best stadium in America, and we're enlarging to 65,000 when we get into the Big East Conference."

    The mighty Owls then rang in the Carl Pelini era Friday night at their year-old, 30,000-seat "House That Howard Built," pummeling Wagner 7-3.

  • Youngstown State 31, Pitt 17: Let's go Pens!
  • Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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