Virginia Tech freshman cornerback Kendall Fuller (right) breaks up a pass intended for Alabama's Amari Cooper.
BLACKSBURG, Va. - It's not a bold statement to declare Virginia Tech's defense the best Marshall has faced since offensive coordinator Bill Legg and quarterback Rakeem Cato cranked up the tempo a year ago.When the Thundering Herd enters the consistently loud environment of Lane Stadium, offensive players know what they'll see across the line of scrimmage.Purdue, this isn't. The Hokies (2-1) are unranked, but it's not because of the defense."They've got a freshman corner out there [Kendall Fuller] ... those corners are NFL guys," said Herd coach Doc Holliday. "You go to that game, there are two freshmen [also including Brandon Facyson] that are NFL players - I don't normally say that about freshmen, but they are."They've got athletes in that secondary, and that's the reason they're second in total defense, and that's the reason they've had a top-10 defense, for the most part, for the last 19 years."The Herd (2-1) takes on the Hokies at noon today on ESPNU, and there's no sense tiptoeing into this one."I told the kids this: You'd better be ready to attack the attackers," Legg said. "Because I promise you this: They're going to attack you on every play. So you better be ready to attack back every single play, rather than sitting on your heels and waiting to see what happens."Marshall has seemingly tiptoed into a few of these battles with so-called "BCS AQ" teams. Last year, it closed the Purdue game to a 51-41 final but was down 42-14 at halftime. Earlier that year, MU trailed 69-20 at West Virginia en route to a 69-34 loss.
MU's last success in such a game came in 2011, when the Herd upended Louisville 17-13. But the Herd hasn't come close in four games against Virginia Tech since 2002, falling into deficits of 33-0, 34-7, 45-7 and 23-3 in three quarters or less.Those were rump-kickings, which Marshall is trying to avoid this time around. Once again, the Herd will be tested severely in all three phases.Offensively, the Herd got to see an example of how to handle Tech's struggling offense, courtesy of East Carolina last week. The Herd's defense has vastly improved so far, but must face a rare two-back offense which no doubt was embarrassed to rush for just 53 yards at ECU.Perhaps Logan Thomas, whom Marshall players called the largest quarterback they've ever played against by far, can pick that up himself. Or Thomas could prove as efficient passing to flanker Dmitri Knowles and other budding receivers as he was last week."He's such a big guy. He's strong, so he can hang in that pocket," said MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. "He's got a strong arm, and he can throw a ball [with quick release], those kind of shots.
"You can't fall off of him if you're a 220-pound linebacker. You've got to wrap him up; he's a physically imposing guy, for sure."The Herd must handle an equally inspired Tech special-teams unit, probably still stung by giving up two return touchdowns against Alabama three weeks ago. DeAndre Reaves may get the kickoff return chores to himself today, while Devon "Moo Moo" Smith is eager to show his speed on punt returns.
And from his receiver position. Smith's presence gives Marshall one speed advantage on many plays, and a few explosive plays could take the heat off dependable targets Tommy Shuler and Gator Hoskins.That's one of several subplots of MU's offense vs. Tech's defense, arguably today's most interesting matchup. To get a sniff of the end zone, Herd receivers must do better than ECU's did in getting open. Rushing for more than ECU's 46 yards would help.With Bud Foster in his 19th year as Tech's defensive coordinator, there are few secrets, but ..."But you've still got to block those cheetah cats that play end," Legg said. "You've got to block those 300-pound defensive tackles that are quick. You've still got to get up to a linebacker who's going to meet you in the hole every time you run the football. You've still got to accelerate off the football when you're running routes, execute your routes."That part of it doesn't change. If you're going to beat them, you're going to have to execute."That and play with some passion, whether the game is suspenseful or a mismatch.
"If you don't love playing a game like this, you probably shouldn't be in this profession," Legg said. "Or you shouldn't be playing in it, whatever the case may be."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.