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In defense of the Herd offense, at least

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- FIRE THE defensive coordinator. Fire both coordinators. Fire Doc Holliday. Fire the graduate assistants. Burn down the Shewey Athletic Building.

That's what a number of Marshall fans were demanding after a win.

I get this, to some extent. After watching their team give up 69 to West Virginia and lose 54-17 to Central Florida, I understand the sentiment.

After seeing their Thundering Herd lose to Alabama-Birmingham - Marshall should never lose to UAB in football - I understand the outrage. Add that one to agonizing losses to Ohio and Tulsa, and you have a season that could have been, instead of this repeat of 2010 (5-7) or 2011 (7-6).

(By the way: Memphis 46, UAB 9. Really?)

Whether the Herd pulls out a bowl bid with an upset Friday afternoon at East Carolina, or it loses to finish 5-7, there will be some soul-searching after Year 3 of the Holliday regime. There should be.

Doc's not going anywhere, but there is no shortage of grumbling over defensive coordinator Chris Rippon, who presides over one of the nation's most porous defenses. Scoring defense is 116th at 41.09 points per game, rushing defense is 106th at 211.0 yards per game and the Herd is 89th in pass efficiency defense rating.

And Rippon hasn't swayed the green-clads in the last three games, even with the Herd winning two. Second-half near-collapses against Memphis and Houston have played a role - the Herd saw a 31-7 lead over the Tigers melt to 31-28 before winning 38-28, and saw Houston wipe away a 38-17 deficit before the Herd prevailed 44-41.

You can cite a still-young defense that has put together good halves recently, including the first half against Houston. You can point to 13 takeaways in the last five games, which is what that defense needs on a consistent basis. D.J. Hunter's move to linebacker (look for him to go back to safety for 2013) was the best position move in the Holliday/Rippon era.

But it's a tough sell. Holliday's Marshall tenure probably hinges on what he does with his defensive staff, no matter which way he goes with Rippon. Consider this: If Holliday lets Rippon go, does he improve matters with the replacement? (Yeah, I noticed Rick Minter is likely available after Kentucky finishes the season. I mention that without further comment.)

I understand the sentiment on the defensive side. The really strange idea from some fans is canning both coordinators.

Really? I hope that's a puny minority. I had an all-time first on Saturday, seeing a fan call for the offensive coordinator's head on the same day his unit rolls up 650-plus total yards.

On the whole, Bill Legg has done a whale of a job installing the breakneck offense and bringing quarterback Rakeem Cato along. After years of enduring the Herd's "dead ball" era, I find this such a welcome development.

Marshall averages a cool 39.3 points and 525.3 yards a game this season, and here is what you should remember about those numbers:

  • The Herd went 45 straight games, from the beginning of 2008 to deep in 2011, without scoring 39 points in any game. Add in the first 11 games of the 2007 season and we're talking 56 of the previous 57 games.
  • Until the Herd gained 545 yards against West Virginia, you have to go all the way to 2004 to find the last time Marshall topped today's 525 average against an FBS team. It was that well-chronicled, long-cursed Akron game.
  • Now, there was much to pick at against Houston. I thought it needed to score more than 10 points off the defense's four three-and-outs, and the two interceptions (one a receiver's fault, the other Cato's) crushed scoring drives. The surprising trouble at the UAB game has been much discussed.

    With this offense, you almost have to have a risk-reward defense that banks on big plays. I'm not sure how close Marshall is to succeeding with that formula, but there have been several examples in the last eight seasons in Conference USA.

    For now, remember this: If you're going to be a .500 team, at least be entertaining. This is the most entertaining Marshall team in nearly a decade.

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  • Flawed theory of the weekend: Marshall's millennium-high 106 plays hurt the defense.

    Yes, it can happen. You score quickly, your defense returns to the field quickly. If you can't get a first down, your defense hits the field really, really quickly.

    But in this game, a look at the time of possession blows the theory away. Marshall held the ball nearly 32 minutes, 55 seconds - 2 seconds off the season high against West Virginia. It was just the fourth time Marshall has "won" that category, with a split result on the scoreboard.

    Marshall's tempo, as rapid as it was, helped the Herd defense get as much rest as it did. That started at the beginning with a 16-play, 81-yard drive that chewed up 5:04. The Herd also had an 11-play, 74-yard drive taking 3:29, a 14-play, 75-yard drive taking 4:18 and a 14-play, 73-yard field goal drive using up 5:03.

    That gave the Herd a 41-38 lead, and I could argue the defense got an extra breather to use on Houston's last possession, a drive in which the Cougars had to settle for a tying field goal.

    I won't reach that far, but the Herd's "NASCAR" offense doesn't need a yellow flag.

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  • A sign of Cato's comfort and confidence in running that offense: He was surprised when he was told the Herd took 106 official snaps.  

    I surely wasn't. My gauge is easy - how much time do I have to jot down notes between plays? Answer: none. I was lucky to note yard line, time and distance.

    But Cato said, "It seemed like we ran fewer plays. They were blitzing all the time, so we had to slow our offense down to get the right looks."

    Yes, they had to slow it down, all the way to 106 snaps.

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  • Coaches who call timeout a split-second before an opposing field goal attempt richly deserve to lose. I'm talking to you, Tony Levine.

    In the waning seconds of Saturday's game, Houston's coach pulled one of the most annoying tricks in the coaches' bag, calling a timeout just before Justin Haig's field-goal attempt. With that timeout coming so close to the snap, snapper Matt Cincotta, holder Blake Frohnapfel and kicker Haig had to go through their routine.

    Haig sneaked the ball over the crossbar from 45 yards, but had to do it again. With an extra minute to go over mechanics, Haig hit the field goal again and the Herd won.

    The whole practice of "icing" the kicker is useless most of the time, even if you don't stoop to Levine's stunt. I argue the kicker is at his biggest disadvantage in his first attempt. He, his snapper and holder have worked on the sidelines with a net, but it's not really the same.

    This reminds me of one of my highlights of the 2011 season, when Rice coach David Bailiff tried the pre-snap timeout with Marshall kicker Tyler Warner. Warner missed left on the nullified attempt, and then poked the "real" 45-yarder down the middle. As it turned out, the Owls had to score a touchdown instead of a field goal after Marshall went ahead 24-20 with 1:49 left.

    One hopes Bailiff learned his lesson. "I thought that was momentum into the half, and I was happy for Tyler. I'm glad David called that timeout," Holliday said then.

    Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, by email at dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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