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Heater lays foundation well, then springs trickery

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- MANY THOUGHTS swirling while I am hoping former Marshall players will never drop a "Lane Kiffin" reference on the coaching staff, or have any perceived reason to do so:

  • Like other fans and observers, I'm loving the Thundering Herd's "Radar" defense that messed with Texas-San Antonio in that 34-10 win Saturday.
  • Defensive coordinator Chuck Heater told a little bit about the purpose of that funky package afterward, one he had an extra week to put in. He was justifiably concerned about the Roadrunners' offense and reached into his bag of tricks.

    So that's what we saw on several plays Saturday - one or two down linemen with three or four defenders jumping about. Or the down linemen going back up and moving around. Or whatever - even I was getting dizzy.

    When Heater first sprang it, I doubt UTSA quarterback Eric Soza had ever seen it at any level.

    "It's just for passing situations. Teams have the ability to handle it, but we kind of surprised them a little bit," Heater said. "I might have bothered [Soza] today because they haven't really worked on it. People will work on it [now], obviously.

    "We hope it will help create confusion in their ability to ID your rushers and make it more difficult on them. It's kind of new, kind of fun."

    As impressive as anything is how Heater is bringing in these new wrinkles. His goal in spring practice and in preseason camp was simplicity, not giving defenders too much to think about. Play calls consist of one word instead of the four or more demanded by Heater's predecessor.

    As his players grasped the base 4-2-5, they picked up the shifts into the 4-3. Mastering the latter became important down the line, as linebacker Stefan Houston returned from his ankle injury and had a full week to settle in at strong-side linebacker.

    With UTSA's perimeter game, "setting the edge" and forcing the Roadrunners inside was a point of emphasis. That mission was accomplished on nearly every play, save for a 29-yard reverse in the third quarter, a play that dealt end Gary Thompson a hard lesson in overpursuit.

    That's the drive A.J. Leggett ended with his interception in the end zone, putting that play into the deep recesses of memory. Those cut blocks the Herd prepared to face? The number of those were, uh, cut.

    "With a team that likes to cut block, they didn't really do it as much because we set the edge," said Houston, who led the Herd with eight tackles. "Edge pressure blitzing, blitzing on the inside, all type of different plays that we ran, they didn't know what to do."

    No, they didn't.

  • The off week did wonders for defensive preparation, but wasn't welcomed by the offense. That side had sloppy practices Tuesday and Wednesday, and the offensive line may have had to get re-accustomed to contact.
  • "I never like off weeks. I hate off weeks, whether we win or lose," said offensive coordinator Bill Legg. "If you win, you want to keep the rhythm going. If you lose, you want to get that taste out of your mouth as fast as humanly possible."

    Rakeem Cato & Co. passed well enough and the Herd ran the ball well enough in the fourth quarter to win going away, but things must improve for Saturday's game at Florida Atlantic. The number of double-digit yardage plays wasn't great - 10, three by rush and seven by pass.

    The five sacks were disconcerting. That number is the highest the Herd has yielded since the 2012 season finale against East Carolina; the nine over two games is the most since the ECU game and the game before that, against Houston.

  • Marshall's scoring defense is best in Conference USA, 17.4 points per game. And that figure is misleading.
  • This is my longtime beef: Defensive touchdowns and special-teams brain cramps can distort those figures, and overtimes can do it, too. Marshall's roughest defensive performance came at Ohio, but the Herd defense yielded 27 points, not 34. As you know, Steward Butler's fumbled kickoff led to a pivotal touchdown, as the Bobcats recovered the ball in the end zone.

    The Herd allowed just two touchdowns to Virginia Tech in regulation, which I found most impressive. Tech scored seven points off a blocked punt and eight more in the third overtime.

    You may find me using scoring defense stats with the appropriate adjustments. Going with that, Marshall's defense is yielding 14.6 per game, 12.8 in regulation.

    By any measure, nobody could envision that last November.

  • Bulletin: Florida Atlantic, Marshall's next opponent, actually scored points last week at Alabama-Birmingham. Lots of them - the final was 37-23, and it was the third time since 2010 the Owls have scored 37 against anybody.
  • For the answer, look at quarterback Jaquez Johnson, who returned from a shoulder injury to post 404 total yards - 299 by air and 105 by land. More impressive, he didn't commit a turnover, a welcome sight for coach Carl Pelini after last week.

    "'Quez' is becoming an experienced signal-caller. He's a rock," Pelini said. "You know, the turnovers went away, and we kept telling them if we can take care of the ball, avoid turnovers, we can be a pretty good offense."

    Johnson's backup, Greg Hankerson, suffered a three-turnover meltdown in the final eight minutes to give Rice a 18-14 victory. FAU (2-4, 1-3) remains alive for a bowl berth, but has to navigate Marshall, Auburn and resurgent Tulane in the next three games.

    Kickoff Saturday is 5 p.m., with Fox College Sports Atlantic (Channel 509 on Suddenlink digital) televising.

  • Question that came up after West Virginia great Pat White blistered WVU coach Dana Holgorsen in a tweet after the 73-42 loss at Baylor: Would Chad Pennington do anything close to that if he grew dissatisfied?
  •  Of course not, and neither would Byron Leftwich. I am reminded of Leftwich calling coach Mark Snyder to encourage him during the rough 2007 season. No #LaneKiffin here.

  • Potential sign of the apocalypse: It's very early, but Tulane and Rice are leading the West Division. If it comes down to that, it's critical that the East champ (MU or East Carolina, most believe) have a better conference record and the home field in the C-USA championship game.
  • Tulane and Rice are two of the worst-drawing teams in the league's largest stadiums.

  • And finally, I didn't think I'd ever say this, but I miss Memphis football.
  • I looked into the Tigers' 24-17 loss to Conference USA-turned-Ack rival Central Florida because, well, it was close. I smelled something here.

    Paydirt. UCF was down 17-10 when its offense finally woke up and drove 80 yards for an unusual tying touchdown. The Knights had to convert a fourth-and-10 along the way and scored when a tackle recovered a fumble in the end zone.

    Memphis took the next kickoff and Marquis Warford fumbled under a big hit, with UCF's Drico Johnson returning the loose ball 12 yards for a 24-17 lead. On the next kickoff, Joe Craig ran it back 100 yards for the apparent tying TD, but a holding penalty wiped it out.

    Undaunted, the Tiggers drove to the UCF 6 and tried a halfback option pass, which Terrance Plummer intercepted in the end zone. How Memphis is that?

    Yes, I miss those guys.

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


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