UAB's Darrin Reaves
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall's bowl-less 2012 concluded with a season-ending loss at East Carolina, but the true demise probably came two weeks earlier at Birmingham's Legion Field.The scene at the "Old Gray Lady" was painful for the Thundering Herd. With the usual small crowd cheering the hosts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Blazers lined up and knocked Herd defenders off the ball, again and again and again.And if you could hear, you knew who carried the ball. With increasing volume, the "Darrin Reaves!" exhortation bounced around the sleepy neighborhood surrounding the old stadium, making one wonder if the announcer was going to blow out his vocal cords.Reaves rushed for 94 of his 184 yards in the fourth quarter of the Blazers' 38-31 win. He carried seven times in the 11-play, 80-yard drive that put the game away, gaining 2, 7, 18, 5, 0, 10 and 17 yards. That last rush resulted in a touchdown, a 38-24 lead giving MU only 2:50 left for a futile rally.
"Yeah, there are some bad memories," said cornerback Monterius Lovett. "They just physically beat us."The loss to ECU wasn't an upset. The UAB result was, and it proved to upset the Herd's bowl hopes.The anguish lingers, and will do so right up to kickoff of the MU-UAB game at noon Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Marshall (5-3, 3-1 Conference USA) has a chance to clinch that elusive bowl berth with three games to spare, and to keep pace in the East Division race.Herd players know what's coming Saturday, and it's not exactly "Air Blazer." Last week at Legion Field, UAB (2-6, 1-3) nearly pounded out an upset of Middle Tennessee, losing on an 18-yard field goal with 3 seconds left.The Blazers switched from pocket passer Austin Brown to the more mobile Jonathan Perry and threw only nine times. They ran 56 times, plenty enough for Reaves to rush for 111 yards and a touchdown and Jordan Howard to romp for 154. The Blazers hogged the ball for 38-plus minutes, keeping an offense that scored 51 points against Marshall off the field.Reaves is a solidly built 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior who is on pace to get close to his 1,037 rushing yards of 2012. But Howard has rushed for 650 yards, right behind Reaves' 678, and has 403 yards on 55 carries over the last three games.The freshman from Gardendale, Ala., is even bigger at 6-1, 228, and was named the Birmingham News North/East Player of the Year as a high school senior. His presence means the Herd now faces two fresh runners who apparently don't dance through holes."We preparing quite well for Reaves, and we have respect for that guy," said defensive end Alex Bazzie. "And not only him, all the backs they have. We have a lot of respect for them because they're downhill, power runners."This rematch of machismo stands to be an interesting test for the Herd. Part of it is the different venue, Edwards Stadium; part of it is the improvement in the Herd's defense. The 308-yard disaster at MTSU dropped the Herd to fourth in C-USA at 138.6 rushing yards per game, but that still beats the 203.1-yard kelly green sieve of a year ago.More impressive is the Herd's 78-yard average at home. Sure, those four opponents have involved two winless teams, an FCS team and 4-5 Texas-San Antonio, but those teams might have run well on the 2012 Herd defense anyway.Linebacker Evan McKelvey was rehabilitating his knee injury last year, but has watched the film of that UAB game and he didn't like it any better than those who took part.
"Last year, there were a lot of individual players on that team," McKelvey said. "When you have a lot of individual players, teams start to break down. This year, we have a lot more team players and if you work together, stuff becomes a whole lot easier."Stuff like "run fitting," which the Herd struggled with in the MTSU game. Tackling wasn't great in that game, either, as Bazzie estimated the missed-tackle count as 13-15.But most games, that number is less than 10, which is a weekly goal. And this MU team is a whole lot better tackling in the open field - on that count, players give a lot of credit to defensive coordinator Chuck Heater."Coach Heater stressed that a lot, that you have to make plays in the open field," Bazzie said. "We stress that - we've got to win our one-on-ones when we're facing an opponent. We just practice a lot with bending our knees and then getting in a football position, bowing your neck and keeping your head up when you make a tackle, and that's allowing our guys to see what they're hitting."Then again, you don't want to make too many open-field tackles on Reaves and Howard. Getting a good push, filling the right gaps and old-fashioned effort will be the order of the day."All we've got to do is keep hitting him and hopefully slow him down from there," said defensive end Ra'Shawde Myers. "At least 10 to 11 heads to the ball."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.