By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
So much has been written and said of Marshall’s up-tempo offense. The Thundering Herd can score on anybody. They have so many weapons. Rakeem Cato is emerging as a legitimate FBS quarterback.
All of it, true.
But for all the positives about the team offensively, there was just as much reason, if not more, for criticism of the defense.
Anyone who has bemoaned or lamented Marshall’s defense the last three months had all of his or her points proven in Friday’s season-ending 65-59 double-overtime loss at East Carolina. It took the offense a while to crank up, but it finally started firing after falling behind 28-7.
And the reason for that three-touchdown deficit was the same as it’s been all season: The defense couldn’t stop anyone.
Even with Cato knocked out of the game with a knee injury late in the third quarter, the Herd offense was a machine, outscoring the Pirates 52-38 after falling behind. Cato had bolstered his nation-leading passing numbers with five touchdown passes and 318 yards on 77.5 percent passing (31 of 40).
Cato, who should be a shoo-in for first-team All-Conference USA honors, finished his sophomore season with 406 completions in 584 attempts for 4,201 yards and 37 touchdowns. He was intercepted 11 times.
The Herd loses two productive seniors in the receiving corps in Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson. What a last day it was for Wilson, who had three touchdown catches in his final game with the Herd.
But coming back will be, among others, Tommy Shuler, Cato’s former high school teammate in Miami. Shuler led the receivers with 14 catches for 141 yards and two TDs. He is third in the nation in receptions per game (9.17) and 15th in receiving yards (94.83) after Saturday’s games.
There was even hope given for the running game’s future, with junior Essray Taliaferro making the most of his first career start. He ran 27 times for 130 yards, and his 1-yard touchdown put Marshall up 52-45 with 1:55 to play.
Unfortunately, it was Talliaferro’s fumble that set the Pirates up for the game-winning score (more on that in a moment). But Marshall will go into the 2013 season with the running game in good hands, from a returning Tron Martinez to a three-headed sophomore attack of Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson. Now you can add Talliferro to the mix.
Marshall finished the regular season first in C-USA in scoring (40.9 points per game), passing offense (365.1 yards per game) and total offense (534.2) and fourth in rushing offense (169.2).
So why did the Herd win only five games with such prolific offensive numbers?
While special teams were nothing to get excited about — remember UCF kick returner Quincy McDuffie’s two 90-plus-yard touchdowns in the same game, or Trey Watts’ 95-yarder that proved Marshall’s undoing against Tulsa? — the obvious answer is defense.
(To digress a little, isn’t it ironic that UCF and Tulsa will play for the C-USA championship?)
Marshall was dead last in scoring defense, allowing 43.1 points per game, which is just ahead of Colorado for 119th out of 120 FBS teams. East Carolina was the second team to stick 60 on the Herd, joining West Virginia (69-34) in the season opener. Three others posted 50 — Rice (a 54-51 double-overtime Herd win), Purdue (51-41) and UCF (54-17).
The Herd was also 10th in rushing defense (203.1 yards per game) and total defense (456.6) and eighth in passing defense (253.5).
A particularly revealing stat is opponents’ third-down conversion rate, where Marshall was ninth at 44.5 percent.
All of that was reflected in the loss to the Pirates.
Marshall actually outgained ECU in total offense, 633-555. But the defense made quarterback Shane Carden look like a veteran instead of a true sophomore.
Carden set a school-record with 439 yards and three touchdowns, and he also ran for three scores. And, just like Marshall head coach Doc Holliday spoke of during game week, Carden did not turn the ball over.
It was his 1-yard run in the second overtime that gave the Pirates the win. It was the last play of the year for the Herd, although not exactly the one that underscored what has plagued this team since early September.
That came on the very first play of overtime, when Harden connected with Andrew Bodenheimer for a 25-yard touchdown pass. Right off the bat, the offense had to bail out an inept defense once again.
With the offense playing as it did all season, Marshall should have been able to win at least seven games. Improvement on defense is clearly the team’s biggest issue.
“We’ve got to start playing better defense around here,” Holliday said after Friday’s game.
Saturday’s announcement of defensive coordinator Chris Rippon’s resignation is an unforunate move in that direction. From better schemes to getting players in the right positions, major changes are necessary to improve the next-to-worst defense in college football.
— E-mail: gfauber@