Scouting Report: Marshall Defense
Marshall's offense is decent, but its defense is superb.
This season, the Thundering Herd have a nasty, experienced crew of players, some of whom may have pro aspirations. For UConn to move the ball and compete with Marshall, they will need to penetrate this tough, stalwart unit.
The Front Seven
Marshall's defensive success is predicated on the pressure that it is able to generate from its front seven. The Thundering Herd trot out a super athletic defensive front that is able to free up linebackers to make plays in the backfield, utilizing a complimentary scheme much like UConn's.
On the line of scrimmage, Marshall's best player is edge rusher Gary Thompson, a 6-foot-1, 252-pound bowling ball with the ability to get linemen off balance and then race through them, penetrating into the backfield. Thompson leads his team with eight sacks and eleven tackles for loss on the year and is a force to be reckoned on an every down basis. While Thompson is the best of Marshall's front four, his opposite number, freshman Ryan Bee, is an exciting 6-foot-7 talent who has three sacks in his debut season. His long arms and frame make him a draft prospect to watch in the future.
While the edge players are complimentary in terms of body type, the two defensive tackles for Marshall are very similar. Both Steve Dillon and Jarquez Samuel are redshirt seniors who are each about 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds. They win battles at the line of scrimmage similarly, too - strong initial burst and hand technique. While neither of these players are as good as, say, Tanzil Smart of Tulane, they do have the energy and power to shock UConn's weak interior. The Huskies have had major issue with defensive tackle pressure this year and will have to protect starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs adequately if they are to have a chance in this game.
In the linebacking corps, Marshall houses their most prolific tackler in senior Evan McKelvey, who's hard-nosed style makes him seem like a poor man's Tyler Matakevich. He is complemented by D.J. Hunter, a small 6-foot backer with pass rushing burst, and Devontre'a Tyler, a bulky run stopper in the middle of the defense. It should be noted that Tyler often comes out in passing situations for Marshall's nickel and dime packages, leaving Hunter and McKelvey as blitzers and flat cover men.
Marshall has a good deal of talent in their defensive backfield, and it all starts with their safeties. Tiquan Lang and Taj Letman are perfect counterparts - the smaller Lang can handle any coverage responsibilities and Letman, who may be drafted come April if he runs his rumored 4.4 40 yard dash at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, packs some physical punch. The flexibility of these two safeties allows for the cornerbacks to play a vibrant mix of coverages, although they mostly tend to play based on matchups.
Marshall has four cornerbacks that are capable, in tandem, of matching up with any threat posed by another team. In 6-foot tall Keith Baxter, they have a big player. In Corey Tindal and Rodney Allen, they have a great man coverage duo that can both come on blitzes in the blink of an eye. And in the feisty Antavis Rowe, Marshall has someone who is capable of slot responsibilities. This group will surely give UConn problems come the bowl game.
The Gameplan - How To Attack Marshall
Marshall's defense is extremely pressure-heavy and strong, but UConn can definitely manage to eke out an attack if they are able to control the game flow and execute effectively.
First of all, the guards need to play well and line calls have to be made smoothly. Marshall has multiple players capable of bending the edge, and they will assuredly get penetration thanks to their bevy of blitz packages. It's on the center and quarterback to recognize pre-snap tells and make the right line calls. This will help Shirreffs get into a rhythm.
Next, the Huskies need to figure out ways to get Arkeel Newsome involved in the offense. Given his lack of size, it might be smart to pit various fullbacks and tight ends against Marshall's week side linebacker, Hunter, and run some pulls toward him. This worked extremely well early on against Houston. Newsome's shiftiness can also be used successfully on interior runs and traps. If Newsome can average 4 yards a carry, that would bode well for the Huskies.
The key player in this game might be Alec Bloom, the sophomore tight end who seems so physically talented but still makes bad mental mistakes on a game-by-game basis. Marshall has a good amount of speed in the flats, but Bloom's size will give him mismatches against their smaller linebackers and defensive backs. The Huskies should look to run him up the seam on routes and let him get opportunities against smaller players. All year long, Bloom has flashed elite, NFL quality physical traits. This game will be a major test for him to see if he can hang on to the ball a bit more.
Finally, the receivers need to also step up. While there are certain circumstances beyond his control preventing him from breaking out, Noel Thomas has an opportunity in this game to showcase his talent. He will have work to do against the solid Marshall cornerbacks, but he needs to average 7-10 yards every time the ball is in his hands. Opposite Thomas, Hergy Mayala and Tyraiq Beals have opportunities to step up, too. If one of the receivers can make some big plays, it would really take the pressure off of Shirreffs and the defense. Then, maybe, UConn will have a shot against Marshall.