Mitchell brought 'calmness' to Marshall defense
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- MARSHALL'S TRIP to the visiting locker room at M.M. Roberts Stadium went right past the Southern Mississippi band. After their 59-24 dismemberment of the home team Saturday, some Marshall players started dancing to the music.
Didn't see any dancing from Billy Mitchell, though. Something tells me that's for the better, but I can assure you this: He was sporting the widest grin on the team.
He should have been. Not only did the 6-foot-3, 238-pound junior return from missing two months with a concussion, he started at middle linebacker and contributed to Marshall's best defensive effort of the season.
The 24 points allowed - which included a defensive touchdown and a garbage-time score - enabled the Herd to escape the 120th and last spot in the FBS in that category. The 331 total yards represented a season low, and that included 59 yards on said garbage-time drive.
That Mitchell guy has the magic touch, doesn't he?
OK, let's not go overboard with somebody who registered four tackles. Other Herd defenders were beastly - tackle Brandon Sparrow pushed his weight around with three tackles for loss, end Alex Bazzie had eight tackles, pass coverage was better than solid and D.J. Hunter was simply everywhere. It's not every day a strong-side linebacker gets in on 11 stops.
As for Mitchell, his forced fumble crushed Southern Miss' last, faint hopes for a comeback.
Down 45-17 late in the third quarter, the Golden Eagles knifed through a Herd defense that suddenly lost its focus. But when Tyre Bracken ran up the middle for what would have been a 5-yard touchdown, Mitchell separated him from the ball and Armonze Daniel recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
Mitchell isn't the fastest of the Herd's linebackers, but he probably is the strongest. And he lends intangibles the Herd defense has lacked at times.
"I thought Billy Mitchell, he kind of settled things down in there," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "He's got some experience, and he played a whole lot of football for us a year ago. Him being in there, I just thought, gave kind of a calmness to that defense. I thought that defense played tremendous."
Pound for pound, who is the Herd's best tackler? I nominate Justin Haig.
Haig, the Herd's height-challenged kicker, was credited with three solo tackles in Saturday's game, and those were no joke. And he's not afraid to go downfield, either - his tackles came at the 25-, 29- and 35-yard lines.
Listed at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds (I suspect lead weights in the pockets), he now has six tackles in seven games, 10 for his career.
"I'm getting a little nervous; he made about every tackle on the kickoff out there," Holliday said. "I told Rip [defensive coordinator Chris Rippon] we had to move him to linebacker or something."
Haig and the Herd kickoff coverage had their best game of the year, possibly by a wide margin. Taking advantage of the lousy new kickoff rules, Haig is getting good hang time on his kicks and letting the cover team get downfield. Of 10 (!) kickoff returns, Southern Miss failed to reach the 20-yard line six times.
Who needs a stinkin' touchback?
Take double credit if you realized Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tommy West has been trampled by two 59-point Herd stampedes in two seasons.
Last season, he coordinated the defense at Alabama-Birmingham, which was buried 59-14 by the Herd at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Two games, 118 points against.
Joe DeForest, you are not alone.
West almost gets a pass for the UAB game. The Blazers coughed up the ball five times, putting the Herd offense near midfield or better most of the game. The Herd scored its points on just 429 total yards.
Saturday, Marshall rang up exactly 200 more yards on West's defense, which I thought was soft. The Herd's defense has been criticized for its tackling, but the Southern Miss effort was the worst I have seen this season - and a big reason the Golden Eagles are 0-7 and already out of the bowl running.
The first time West and Marshall crossed paths in Conference USA, the Herd gained just 154 total yards in a pitiful 26-3 loss at Memphis to finish the 2005 season. Saturday, the Herd topped that yardage by the 22nd of its 85 scrimmage plays.
I never thought I would see Marshall pound a Southern Miss team so thoroughly, and never thought I'd see the following written about the Eagles.
In his postgame press conference, still-winless coach Ellis Johnson questioned if some of his players really wanted to play football.
As seen in the Hattiesburg American: "There's no way we can perform in some of the areas that we did, the way we did, without an element of guys not finishing and going full speed. I just feel like some guys, when they really got challenged, that they backed off."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.