HUNTINGTON - In describing Memphis under its new coaching staff, Marshall coach Doc Holliday summed it up this way: The Tigers' offense and defense are alike.
As he and his two coordinators describe it, those units are alike in this manner: They like to create chaos, leaving opponents hopelessly guessing what's coming next. Holliday summed it up thusly: "They run triple-option, they run mid-option and a lot of things to create problems for our offense. They're a three-down look [on defense] and they're bringing people from all over the place."
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg can attest to the changes in the Memphis defense. Last year, the Herd's biggest problem was trying to neutralize big nose tackle Dontari Poe, and to quit tripping over itself (Marshall had six turnovers before rallying to win 23-22).
The 350-pound Poe anchored a four-man front, but he has gone to the NFL and the new Tiger staff is going with a 3-4 look. Legg confirms what his boss says, and then some: The Tigers (1-7 overall, 1-3 Conference USA) are going in every direction, and coming from every direction.
Martin Ifedi, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound sophomore, has blossomed into a major force from one of the ends, leading the team with seven sacks, 91/2 tackles for loss and two fumbles forced. Legg believes the new scheme has made the most of his ability.
"They don't ever stand still," Legg said of the defensive linemen. "There's three of them, a nose and two ends, tackles, whatever you want to call them, and they're in constant movement. Last year, you knew where Poe was going to be. If he lined up on your right shoulder, he was still going to be on your right shoulder when you made first contact. He might lift you up and throw you in the backfield. ... This year, it's the movement."
The Tiger defense has suffered one season-ending injury, to senior lineman Zach Gholson. Still, the until has improved from 117th to 85th nationally in total defense, 97th to 75th in rushing defense and 109th to 95th in pass efficiency defense.
"But you look at them statistically, and considering [the circumstances], they haven't done that bad," Legg said. "They've got a lot of [tackles for loss], a lot of sacks because of the confusion. And even though they're running a whole new defense, they have some experience, because a lot of those kids played a year ago."
Defensive coordinator Chris Rippon describes the Memphis offense as a "Texas/TCU offense," complete with triple-option and other wrinkles.
"They're doing with the run game what our offense does with the pass game," Rippon said. "And they're trying to, with their motions and formations, to develop their offensive line. They have some junior-college kids and some new backs and new terminology. They're trying to put less stress on that.
"What you have a difficult time doing is replicating the read plays and the triple-option timing, and who gets put in the 'island.' That's where their offense puts you, and it's such a perimeter game that now they can hit you up the middle because you're running sideline to sideline."
While this is a ground-heavy offense - 302 rushes vs. 191 passing attempts - there is a little Texas Tech thrown in. That comes at quarterback, where Jacob Karam transferred in from Lubbock and won the starting job.
He had limited game experience at Texas Tech, playing six games and going 9 of 17 for 104 yards and two touchdowns. That was going to stay limited - as West Virginia fans can testify, Karam wasn't going to unseat 4,000-yard passer Seth Doege for the starting job. But after Karam earned his degree, he was able to transfer to Memphis without sitting for a year.