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Cumberlander

Marshall offensive lineman Jack Murphy and defensive lineman Koby Cumberlander (32) shake hands during a Herd practice.

HUNTINGTON — Marshall’s defense has tackled each challenge it has faced in the 2020 season.

Whether question marks or adversity, the Thundering Herd defensive unit has had a way to answer each call.

Now comes its biggest challenge — trying to stay on top.

Marshall leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense, allowing just 3.5 points per game.

“To watch them come out and [see] how hard they play and how fast they play, that’s been the fun thing for me to watch,” Marshall defensive coordinator Brad Lambert said. “They’ve just been really, really locked in and then when they go out and play hard they let our speed dictate the pace of the game.”

The season opened with a 59-0 win over Eastern Kentucky in which the Herd limited the Colonels to 166 total yards. That was enough to get the buzz going, but it wasn’t until the performance against No. 23 Appalachian State that many saw the MU defense was for real.

In that 17-7 win over App State, Marshall kept the Mountaineers to just 96 yards rushing while also allowing just one touchdown — that coming on the first drive of the game. App State drove 85 yards in 11 plays on its first possession, which resulted in the team’s lone touchdown.

Over the course of the next two-plus quarters, however, App State had just 129 yards on 41 plays as the Herd defense took control. While App State got into the red zone twice in the fourth quarter, Marshall denied the Mountaineers points on each occasion, forcing a fumble that resulted in a touchback and getting a missed field goal that also kept points off the board.

That opportunistic defense gives Marshall the distinction of being college football’s lone team with multiple games played and fewer than 10 points allowed on the season.

“You want to keep them out of the end zone,” Marshall defensive coordinator Brad Lambert said. “That’s the name of the game on defense is try to not let them score. Our guys have done a good job of that — just playing extremely hard, playing fast, playing smart.”

Lambert said battling through mistakes is what helped his team keep the Mountaineers limited and is also key moving forward as the Herd looks toward the Conference USA season, which starts Oct. 10 at Western Kentucky.

“There are some plays that we didn’t play real smart, like the fourth-down play,” Lambert said. “We didn’t play it real well early, but a tribute to the guys to keep playing and doing the things we talk about in creating turnovers when those opportunities arise. They’ve done a good job of keeping people out of the end zone. We’re really proud of how hard they’re playing and how hard they’re practicing.”

Marshall starts the Conference USA portion against a Western Kentucky team that features a strong rushing attack, a veteran offensive line and a mobile quarterback — all of which will be a challenge for the Herd. With three weeks between the App State win and the Oct. 10 matchup with the rival Hilltoppers, Lambert said his team has to be sharp, which is why practices have taken on a game feel.

Marshall defensive lineman Koby Cumberlander said that mentality has led to the team’s on-field success thus far.

“When you’re the better-prepared team, you’re going to win games,” Cumberlander said. “I know everybody on the whole defense — everybody — has that edge. Everyone wants to make the play, everyone wants to be there and be a part of it.”

As Cumberlander put it, the Herd defense as a unit wants to make sure there are no weaknesses as Marshall chases a Conference USA title.

“We know that no one is soft,” Cumberlander said. “We’re going to try to do what we’ve got to do to make a stop and give us a chance to go on offense, score and win this game.”