By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Central Florida has the top-ranked defense in Conference USA.
What a shock.
The Knights are always at or near the top of the league in most defensive categories. Tulsa was in that position earlier in the season, but UCF has risen once again.
“They’re very physical and play extremely hard,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to balance things out, but they’re an excellent defense.”
The Knights are first in the league in total defense (352.9 yards per game), pass defense (200.9) and scoring defense (22.0 points per game). Of course, Marshall is first offensively in those categories — total offense (568.4), passing (390.0) and scoring (43.1).
The rivals will meet for the final time Saturday in Huntington. The 8 p.m. game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
Including UCF, which the Thundering Herd has not beaten since joining C-USA in 2005, three of Marshall’s next four opponents will be leaving for the Big East in July.
In order to end seven seasons of frustration, the Herd (3-4, 2-1 C-USA) will have to win the battle on the ground.
Which leads to another interesting statistic: While UCF’s run defense is fourth in the league, allowing 152.0 yards per game, Marshall’s run game is also fourth, gaining 178.4.
“That’s where we wanted to be,” Holliday said. “When you can throw it and run it both, it helps. I think the offensive coaches have done a great job at taking what the defense is giving them. We have to continue doing that.”
Marshall has ridden the three-headed monster of redshirt freshmen Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson in a rushing attack that has slowly but surely progressed. All three scored touchdowns in last Saturday’s 59-24 win at Southern Miss.
Grooms scored on runs of 64 and 11 yards en route to a career-high 119 yards. The Herd ran for 275 yards in the game.
Grooms, Butler and Watson have combined for 1,076 yards and 14 touchdowns. Marshall had 16 rushing TDs total over the last two seasons.
“Number one, they’re all talented,” Holliday said. “I knew they were all talented. You just never know, as a coach, how freshmen are going to react.
“Similar to (quarterback Rakeem) Cato, the arenas don’t seem to affect those three guys. They love to play. You put them in any arena and they are going to compete. They love to compete and love football. Right now it’s a great situation to have and it has to get better.”
UCF (5-2, 3-0), meanwhile, is sixth in the league at 169.3 rushing yards. Storm Johnson, who once started at Miami, has run for 416 yards and four touchdowns.
Latavius Murray made his second start of the season in last Saturday’s 35-17 win at Memphis and went for 192 yards and two scores.
“We have to stop the run,” Holliday said. “If you stop the run then you have a chance to win any game you’re in. I thought our defense played extremely well in that Southern Miss game. They stopped the run and were creating turnovers.
“This week is going to be no different. There’s no secret to what UCF is going to do when they come in here.”
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