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Steward leads improving Houston pass rush

Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and offensive coordinator Bill Legg have learned to expect the unexpected from opposing defenses. Every week, minor wrinkles or a major overhaul is coming.

What, when and how often is what keeps the Thundering Herd offense on its toes. For instance, consider this: Would Houston, the Herd's opponent this week, see the success Alabama-Birmingham had by dropping eight defenders and copy it?

"Anything is possible," Legg said.

Indeed. And when the Cougars take on the Herd at noon Saturday in a bowl-elimination bout at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, they could throw anything and everything at Cato and company. But there are two good bets:

n Houston will blitz, probably more than anybody the Herd has faced;

n Cato will do well to identify No. 42, linebacker Phillip Steward.

Steward has become the bell cow of the Cougars' defense, tying for the Conference USA lead in sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (16) and leading by himself in forced fumbles (five). He is fourth in C-USA with 104 tackles and second on his team with six quarterback hurries and two interceptions.

With standouts Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw moved on, Steward was the bet to lead the defense. And the 6-foot, 223-pound senior from Missouri City, Texas, will do his damage from anywhere.

"He's their adjusting linebacker," Legg said. "What they do with him is moving him all over the place. He could be out in the alley and blitz [look] and play in coverage, he can be out in the alley and sneak in and blitz, and then when they go to their nickel and their dime package, they move him in the box.

"He's a 'Sam' linebacker sometimes, a 'Will' linebacker sometimes, a 'Mike' linebacker sometimes; he's a good athlete. We played against them last year, and he was strictly a stand-up outside linebacker who was on the line of scrimmage.

"The other thing they do, they have a pass rush package where he becomes a defensive end. It's hard to know where he he's going to be from play to play, to be quite honest with you."

With Steward leading the way, Houston has 29 sacks and 23 turnovers gained, both second in Conference USA. But most of the Cougars' defensive stats aren't so shiny.

They are 11th in the league in total defense (474.2), dead last in passing yards against (276.0) and ninth in scoring defense (37.1). They are the second worst in the most red-zone touchdowns allowed (32), largely because they're second worst in red-zone drives allowed (51).

Louisiana Tech roughed up the Cougars for 598 total yards in a 56-49 slugfest, East Carolina piled up 550 in a 48-24 win and Tulsa gained 505 last week in a 41-7 rout.

"We've had a lot of injuries," Steward said. "That's something we've had to cope with."

Legg is looking harder at the last two games, because the personnel is much different from when Houston played Louisiana Tech on Sept. 8. He points out that the starting line has been overhauled and the safeties and nickel back have changed. Add in a substitution for D.J. Hayden, the cornerback who suffered a near-fatal injury in practice last week.

Apparently, those Cougars are coming after the passer more. A lot more, factoring into that sack total.

"The last four games, their overall percentage is more than 50 percent blitz. That's pretty high," Legg said. "Usually teams that are relatively big blitz teams are 35, 37 [percent]. They're a very aggressive group, which is totally opposite from what they were a year ago."

Legg is looking for a much better game from his offense, which was held to a season-low 337 yards last week. He said the adjustment to UAB's scheme wasn't easy, but much of his team's first-half problems were simpler.

They just didn't play very well, he said.

"The thing is, UAB had shown that, so we had worked against it a little bit," Legg said. "Now, where they changed is they changed how they did their drop-eight coverage. It was a little bit different than what they had shown prior to the game. You had seen them go to drop-eight in every game [but] not every play, and not with that 'double robber' coverage that they ran against us.

"You had seen variations of drop-eight in every game, and we worked it in preparation all week. We did not execute well at all, first half. We block an odd front every single week, because everybody at some point plays it. We work on our run game vs. an odd front, we work on our pass game vs. an odd front and we just did not react well."

Rest assured, the Herd offense will have to react to something different from the Cougars, and do it better.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com.


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