HUNTINGTON - Perhaps more than any game this year, Marshall's offensive coaches must prepare for anything and everything the opposing defense throws its way.As they have learned painfully, Alabama-Birmingham can and will give you a never-before-seen wrinkle. Or in the case of its 38-31 win over the Thundering Herd last season, essentially install a new defense.That is about what the Blazers did, dropping eight defenders on every single down. Rakeem Cato and the Herd offense were baffled."Last year is last year, but it's got to log in the back of every coach's mind that was here because of the way it transpired," said offensive coordinator Bill Legg. "Now, we had worked versus that defense they played for third downs. We had not worked against that defense for first and second downs."And by them going to that defense on first and second downs, it caught us a little off guard. But then we didn't react very well."You could say that. When Austin Brown torched Marshall's porous defense with a 32-yard TD pass, the Blazers were up 31-7 with 5 minutes left in the first quarter. Cato was 10 of 15, but for only 62 yards; the Herd was rushing for just 70 yards on 29 carries.The rally fell well short - the Herd never had the ball with a chance to tie or go ahead - and it sticks with the players. They will try to rectify matters when the Blazers come to town for a noon game Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. MU (5-3, 3-1) will try to cement a spot in the bowl picture.UAB (2-6, 1-2) has another wrinkle to consider - a new defensive coordinator. After the Blazers' 37-23 home loss to Florida Atlantic on Oct. 5, coach Garrick McGee demoted second-year coordinator Reggie Johnson and promoted inside linebackers coach Jimmy Williams.It wasn't hard to see why that change was considered. The Blazers had just given up nearly 600 yards to FAU, and had fallen to last in Conference USA in total defense, 116th of 125 teams nationally.Improvement has come in small steps, but it has come. The Blazers gave up 52 points to Texas-San Antonio and 24 points to Middle Tennessee, though it should be noted that both teams scored a defensive touchdown.
The total yardage figure has melted from 481 yards per game to 469, and the Blazers' defense has risen to 13th in C-USA and 109th in the country. Still not great, but the culture and results are getting better."What I'd to say is how I appreciate the way everybody handled it, very mature," McGee said. "Reggie is still on our staff, doing a very good job with our linebackers. Our kids handled it well."When you have a change like that in the middle of the season, it does make it hard on everybody. I think everybody on our team, our coaches, really handled it well. I'm very proud of that."With three games of the Williams era on video, what does Legg see now?"I've kind of got the impression the DC is more of a four-down [lineman] guy," Legg said. "He's more of a man-concept coverage guy. They have a multitude of ways to play man-to-man, whether it's man-free with a robber, man-free with a single blitzer so you don't have a robber. Whether it's brackets, whether it's what we're calling four-press.
"At the same time, they have shown the 'drop eight' in third-down situations, and they did use it against us [on every down] a year ago, so we have to be prepared for that. That means more zone coverage than it is man coverage."And who knows what else the Blazers will spring on the Herd on Saturday?"Ever since then, every single week without fail, we work on everything we've seen on film," Legg said. "And then we work on the possibility that somebody else may say, 'Let's go odd [front], drop eight.'"Of course, this is the week [in 2012] that started all that and this week will be no different than the others."Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.