Herd's defensive woes harken back to 2012
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - The first thing to know about Middle Tennessee is this: Its offense was supposed to be one of the more potent in Conference USA.
The Blue Raiders weren't supposed to suffer a 34-7 loss to North Texas. They weren't supposed to have a strange quarterback controversy. They weren't supposed to have the right half of their offensive line decimated by injuries, or have a top back struggle to stay healthy.
But they were not supposed to throw around a supposedly improved Marshall defense like a rag doll, either.
But there it was Thursday night at Floyd Stadium: Logan Kilgore played the whole game at QB, showing complete command in all of the school-record 100 snaps. His Blue Raiders received one of the best get-well presents any sputtering offense could wish for.
The 2012 Marshall defense.
The scoreboard told no lies on this chilly night. When Tavarres Jefferson leaped over linebacker Neville Hewitt to snag Kilgore's 9-yard pass as time expired, the Raiders scored a 51-49 win that awakened the echoes of the Thundering Herd's worst-ever defense.
Think about it. Only the lack of an extra-point try kept the Raiders from matching the 52 points East Carolina scored in regulation against the Herd in the 2012 season finale, a 65-59 double overtime win for the Pirates. As we know, defensive coordinator Chris Rippon's tenure didn't make the next lunch hour.
Thursday's failings began with defending the run, and you'll have to go all the way to the 2012 opener for the last time the Herd was gashed for as many as 308 yards on the ground. West Virginia did those honors, rushing for 331 yards on just 35 carries.
The 2012 Herd gave up 301 rushing yards against Rice last year, but much of that came from a Johnny Manziel-ish performance by Owls quarterback Taylor McHargue. More representative were the 2012 ground beat-downs administered by Central Florida (278 yards, 156 by Latavious Murray), Tulsa (250, 111 by Trey Watts) and Alabama-Birmingham's Darrin Reaves (184 yards).
That type of bullying was seen Thursday from MTSU, which had two 100-yard rushers - the formerly nicked-up Jordan Parker with 127 and the speedy Reggie Whatley with 104. Shoot, the Raiders handed off to No. 3 back Jeremiah Bryson 16 times in the second half - two more carries than he had to that point in the season. He gained 68 yards on 20 carries.
At one point, the Raiders played a game of "run it 'til you stop it," getting credit for 21 straight rushing plays spanning three drives. (There was one pass play in that sequence, statistically negated by an MU pass interference penalty.)
When the Herd wasn't getting body-punched on the ground, Kilgore was operating calmly in the pocket, throwing for 277 yards and four touchdowns. Very calmly, as there was never a white-jerseyed pass rusher to be found.
Not only was Kilgore never sacked, but the Herd was credited with just one quarterback hurry - by Brandon Sparrow, on the first play of the game-winning drive. The Herd had to honor the play-action, certainly, but its defensive ends were rendered invisible for all of Kilgore's 40 pass attempts.
That allowed the Raiders to convert most of the time on third and fourth down. From their game-tying TD drive late in the first half through the second half, they were 8 of 14 on third down and 4 of 4 on fourth. The Raiders gained 22 of their 31 first downs in that 31:29 span.
That, and MTSU's Marshall-like tempo, sent the Herd defense into that vicious cycle from which it could not escape. The Raiders held the ball for 18 minutes of the second half, where they snapped the ball 60 times. Thirty-seven of those were running plays, almost all by those three always-fresh tailbacks.
As was seen often in 2012, that's a recipe for a tired defense, and a Herd defeat.
And much like that East Carolina game of 11 months ago, the defensive problems wasted a good offensive performance. The Herd was outgained by MTSU 585-448, but Marshall went 6 for 6 in red-zone touchdowns and converted 9 of 16 on third down.
The Herd had 27 first downs, 14 by land. Essray Taliaferro picked up 134 of the team's 213 rushing yards, and Cato threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns. There were no turnovers, save for an interception of a "Hail Mary" pass at the end of the first half.
Like so many times in 2012, Cato and company did their job and have nothing to show for it.
Then again, you can blame the special units for all three Marshall losses. On Thursday, the Herd suffered its second blocked punt of the season, both resulting in instant touchdowns. Chris Brown did the honors for MTSU in the first quarter, both blocking Tyler Williams' kick and returning it 3 yards for a 14-7 lead.
Marshall had a punt blocked for a touchdown at Virginia Tech, a game won 29-21 in triple overtime by the Hokies. At Ohio, Steward Butler fumbled a kickoff, recovered by the Bobcats in the end zone for a touchdown. The Herd lost that game 34-31 and Butler hasn't returned a kickoff since.
So that's two losses by a combined five points and a third loss in overtime, with 21 points surrendered by special-teams blunders. The math does itself.
Williams may have deserved better at MTSU, as Alex Bazzie blocked Brown into the punter. Whatever the case, the punt team has become the scariest unit.
On the four punts Williams got off, he averaged 39.8 yards - and that includes a 58-yard bomb, something not seen as much this season. To be fair, he has had to rush several punts, particularly in those two games he had one blocked.
"The two things were on punt [team]," MU coach Doc Holliday said. "I thought the rest of it was good. Punt return was good. Kick return was good. Kickoff, they brought one back but there was a penalty on that play. We've got to get that punt team together.
"They've got to be better."
Other tidbits from Thursday night:
He entered the game as MTSU's leading receiver, but he wasn't burning up the stat sheet. He averaged roughly 31/2 receptions and 45.7 yards per game.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.