HUNTINGTON — If defense wins championships — as Marshall football Coach Doc Holliday insists — then the 2015 Herd is headed into the second half of the regular season on the right track.
Against what Marshall veteran defensive coordinator Chuck Heater called “the best offense we’ve played this season — absolutely,” his unit endured 93 Southern Miss offensive plays, but the Herd came away with a 31-10 Conference USA victory.
Marshall (5-1, 2-0 C-USA) turned out the Friday night lights at Edwards Stadium on the Golden Eagles (3-3, 1-1) with relentless pressure and ball awareness. The Herd not only forced five turnovers, but had four sacks, 15 pass breakups and 17 hurries of harried USM quarterback Nick Mullens.
“That’s about as good a defensive performance as I’ve seen anywhere,” Holliday said after his team dominated the second half and won for a fifth straight time against Southern Miss. “They (USM) gained some yards, a lot of it late in the game, but when they (the MU defense) had to make a play they made a play.
“They (the defense) created five turnovers, which was huge. I thought our special teams play was tremendous again. We had a few big kickoff returns and our punter (Tyler Williams) continues to flip the field. Our kickoff guy (Amoreto Curraj) does a great job kicking it off and our field goal and extra-point kicker (Nick Smith) goes in and makes them.
“The bottom line is that (USM) offense moved the football a lot against Nebraska and Mississippi State (in the Golden Eagles’ previous losses). That quarterback had been sensational, but I thought we put a lot of pressure on him. When he wasn’t getting sacked, he was getting hit quite a bit and that was good to see.”
It also was as good a defensive performance on the scoreboard as Marshall has seen in more than a decade. Following a 27-7 triumph over Old Dominion six days earlier, the win over USM gave the Herd back-to-back games with one touchdown scored by each opponent.
The last time consecutive foes had so few points against the Herd came before Marshall joined C-USA in 2005. In the final two games of 2003, the Herd won at UCF, 21-7, then closed an 8-4 season at home with a 28-0 spanking of Ohio.
“We just take every game as a big game — and it is,” said Herd junior defensive end Gary Thompson, who was named the game’s outstanding player with four QB hurries to go with his deuces wild numbers of 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 pass breakups. “The thing was we don’t let (Mullens) pass the ball on us.
“If he sits in the pocket back there, he can complete every pass. So, we tried to put him under as much pressure as we could.”
While Thompson called it the best game of his career, Marshall also had 10 tackles apiece by linebacker Evan McKelvey and safety Tiquan Lang. Tackle Jarquez Samuel turned one of Thompson’s forced fumbles into his first career touchdown. Backup tackle Ricardo Williams had four hurries and backup cornerback Rodney Allen had an interception and a fumble recovery.
Redshirt sophomore defensive end Ryan Bee, making his first career start, had seven tackles, a fumble recovery and blocked a field goal attempt — the Herd’s first kick block of the season. And cornerback Corey Tindal had nine hits, including a sack, to go with two breakups.
“It was big, getting a lot of pressure on (Mullens),” Lang said of the Golden Eagles’ junior who was 29-of-58 for 314 yards with one interception. “Once we started hitting him, he just started just throwing it, and I knew right then we’d gotten into his head and it was going to be a long football game.”
Marshall’s defense had plenty of opportunity to make plays. The visitors gained 439 yards and had possession for 32:22.
“The guys did a great job on third and fourth down (7-of-19 and 1-of-6, respectively),” Heater said. “We just had a lot of big plays, impact plays. Great defenses make big plays, sacks, getting fumbles, interceptions. Those (hurries and breakups) are pretty remarkable numbers, really.
“We still do foolish things at times and if we can eliminate the foolish things and play more error-free football, then we could be really, really outstanding. Tonight was a great effort against a very good offense. They’re well-coached. It’s the best offense we’ve played, absolutely. I felt that coming in and don’t feel any different about it now.”
The Herd offense struggled mightily on third down — 1-of-11 — but did enough to help on a night when the defense was dominant. Freshman quarterback Chase Litton was 11-of-21 passing for 163 yards and two touchdowns, and running back Devon Johnson returned from the shelf with an 82-yard rushing night.
Litton has 10 touchdowns in his four starts — a Herd record, topping the nine in the first four starts by Byron Leftwich and Stan Hill. And his 61-yard TD connection with Deandre Reaves was Marshall’s longest pass play since Rakeem Cato hit Angelo Jean-Louis with 77- and 61-yarders in a win over Ohio last September.
The 11 completions were the fewest for the Herd since an 11-for-29 day by Cato and A.J. Graham in a 16-6 loss in the rain at UCF in October 2011.
“Offensively, we were good for the most part,” Holliday said. “We had the one turnover (Litton’s interception) and that’s one too many. Our freshman quarterback is starting to grow up. He’s 4-0, which is all that matters. That’s just a great team win.”
The five Southern Miss turnovers were the most the Herd has gained since UAB had five giveaways in an October 2011 loss at “The Joan.” So, after the Golden Eagles won five of the first six meetings in the series since Marshall joined C-USA, the Herd has won five straight years.
Only three times has the very successful Southern Miss program lost in at least five straight seasons to an opponent — six consecutive wins by Alabama (1994-99), Memphis (1966-71) and Southwestern Louisiana (1925-30, now Louisiana-Lafayette).
Thompson said that after Marshall lost six defensive starters from 2014 — including stars like Darryl Roberts, Neville Hewitt, James Rouse — the widely accepted notion was that the Herd wouldn’t have what it needed this season on defense.
“We had a lot of guys that left — big guys that left — but we had a lot of guys that played ball here for years and people didn’t pay attention,” the defensive end said. “That’s the chip on our shoulder right now. Forgetting about us, and we’re taking that and using it to play the way we do.”
Heater said the Herd defense has the kind of pieces to keep doing what it has been doing, as Marshall opens the second half of the regular season next Saturday with a noon kickoff at Florida Atlantic.
“We’ve got a pretty salty, veteran group of guys, guys who have been through a lot of wars here,” Heater said. “We’ve got about eight or nine guys who have been starting around here for a while. It doesn’t always feel like that, but it’s really kind of happened.
“There’s a lot of maturity, a lot of saltiness in that group and I think in games, there’s great value to that. Our guys do a pretty good job of getting done what we ask them to do. They practice well and there’s great substance and it gets things done.
“It’s never going to be easy, but tonight was a challenge and they really had to go play against an outstanding offense and they stepped up and it’s great when that happens. We’ve played six (games) and we’ve got six left, and it’s all about winning games. That’s the bottom line.”