Marshall notebook: Takeaway numbers are bright spot of leaky MTSU defense
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - To look at Middle Tennessee's defensive statistics, you might think Thursday night is the time for Marshall's offense to grease the proverbial rails and get moving.
Take a look: The Blue Raiders are giving up 29.9 points per game and a Conference USA-worst 170 first downs. Opponents are averaging 195.4 yards rushing, 4.2 per play, and are giving up nearly 450 total yards a game.
Third and fourth downs have been brutally bad. The Raiders are getting beat on 55 percent on third down and have given up five first downs in seven fourth-down plays. The third-down number is 10 percentage points worse than that yielded by Marshall's maligned 2012 defense.
But the Blue Raiders (3-4, 1-2) are tied for the conference lead and one off the national high in one statistic - turnovers gained. They have split their 20 takeaways evenly between fumbles recovered and interceptions.
The Raiders also are tied for second in C-USA in sacks with 18, spread among 11 defenders. Don't think the two stats aren't related - that's the goal, at least.
"You see those guys, when they get near the quarterback, they try to 'sack-strip' the quarterback," said Alex Mirabal, MU's offensive line coach. "They don't just want to sack the quarterback, they want to sack and strip them."
The Raiders have done that twice, both against Florida Atlantic, and those plays helped them win 42-35 in overtime in Boca Raton. One "sack-strip" was recovered by FAU, but the other one was recovered by MTSU's Stephen Roberts in the red zone, thwarting an Owls' scoring drive late in the second quarter.
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato isn't immune to fumbling while being sacked, as he suffered that fate against Texas-San Antonio. (Fortunately for the Herd, it was up 24-0 at the time, and still only led to a field goal.) More infamous was the "fumble-six" Cato gave up in the 2011 game at Memphis, giving the underdog Tigers a 22-10 lead. (Marshall rallied for a 23-22 win.)
"I've been emphasizing to our guys what our role is in turnover prevention," Mirabal said.
Kickoff time Thursday is 7:30 p.m. EDT, with Fox Sports 1 televising.
Mirabal indicated that the Herd might be locked in on its five-man unit. Garrett Scott's flip from right tackle to left tackle is the last major move, putting Gage Niemeyer on the second unit and elevating Clint Van Horn to starting right tackle.
The Herd's line rotation is at seven for now, with Niemeyer and guard/center Michael Selby the ready-to-go reserves. But look for the Herd's top quintet to solidify, barring injury.
"We're going to try to go with the first five a little bit, to create some continuity," Mirabal said. "Every game is a playoff; that's what I tell them. I have a feeling that right now is about time those guys are just going to let the first five 'go and eat.' Let them see the same pictures over and over again. That's where my mind's at right now."
The first point any coach makes about the MTSU offensive line: Left tackle Darius Johnson and left guard Josh Walker are studs.
"Their left side is as good as we've faced," said defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. "We're very impressed with that side; I know they've been trying to piecemeal everything else with some injuries."
Yes, MTSU's duct tape has been worn out from the center to the right side. At right guard, true freshman Daniel Stephens could get his third start Thursday, and redshirt freshman Hunter Rogers played in the Oct. 12 game at North Texas - a development that persuaded coach Rick Stockstill to leave mobile freshman quarterback Austin Grammer in for the rest of the game.
And there is this: The Raiders are down to third-string center Nick Nunez, with starter Josh Chester (ankle) doubtful and No. 2 Jesse Graham (knee) said to be available on a limited basis.
The right side of the line may benefit from the 12-day gap between games, though. Reports from Murfreesboro indicate starting right guard Jadareius Hamlin may play on a limited basis, while right tackle Isaiah Anderson is expected to play Thursday.
That helps explain the struggles by what was expected to be an explosive offense. The Raiders gained just 205 total yards against North Texas and ran for just 89 yards against East Carolina.
To make matters a little tougher, 6-foot-1, 220-pound back Jordan Parker has been bothered by a hip injury and has run for just 67 yards on 29 carries the last three games. Reggie Whatley, who ran for 154 yards and three touchdowns against FAU, is the smaller (5-7, 167), speedier back.
In simple terms of playing games, this is the Herd's lightest part of the schedule - and the lightest in a few years.
Put it this way: Marshall played at Virginia Tech on Sept. 21 and had two full weeks before the Oct. 5 game against UTSA. A week later, the Herd played at Florida Atlantic, then has 12 days before the MTSU game Thursday.
So on Thursday, the Herd will play its third game in 33 days. The last time the Herd had a longer gap was in 2008, when a 15-day layoff and a Tuesday night game conspired to for a 36-day stretch over three games.
You'll never get an MU player or coach to even consider it, but the issue of rust can't be dismissed. Then again, this Herd team is healthier than anybody could expect in late October.
"Sometimes in practice, you'd see a bunch of red [no-contact] jerseys," said center Chris Jasperse. "Now, hey, let's go play. It's good for us to have everybody out there, ready to go."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.