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Teel Time: Marshall intriguing test for Virginia Tech's rugged defense, suspect offense

Marshall went to Virginia Tech in 2002 nationally ranked and quarterbacked by a top-10 draft choice. The Thundering Herd boast neither trait this season but nonetheless present a curious test Saturday for the Hokies.

Can Marshall and Rakeem Cato, the Bowl Subdivision’s most prolific passer last season, crack a lights-out defense? Will Tech’s offense produce more than two touchdowns in regulation against a FBS opponent for the first time in nine games?

Playing the Herd jazzes few, if any, Hokies faithful, but there’s no denying the questions surrounding the game and the implications for Tech’s impending ACC schedule.

Start with the Hokies’ defense. In the last five games – Virginia and Rutgers last season, Alabama, Western Carolina and East Carolina this -- Bud Foster’s bunch has allowed four touchdowns, half of those to the No. 1 Crimson Tide.

And it’s not like AJ McCarron and ‘Bama bulldozed Tech (2-1). Their scoring drives were 49 and 41 yards — against a group missing two starters in linebacker Ronny Vandyke and cornerback Antone Exum.

If Alabama couldn’t shred the Hokies’ D, Marshall isn’t likely to. But Cato, a 6-foot junior from Miami, led the FBS in passing yards last season at 350.1 yards per game, is averaging 283 yards this year and has a complementary running attack.

Tech sacked Cato five times and intercepted him once in a 30-10 road victory two seasons ago. The Hokies outrushed the Herd 215-6.

Similarly, in a 47-21 win 11 year ago, Tech outrushed Marshall 395-34. The Herd was ranked 16th, and Byron Leftwich, the seventh pick of the 2003 NFL draft, passed for 406 yards and three scores.

Though more balanced, the Herd’s spread offense resembles East Carolina’s, so expect Foster to employ schemes similar to last week, when the Hokies sacked ECU’s Shane Carden seven times in a 15-10 road victory.

“I think our underneath coverage a couple of times flashed in front of where he thought he might go with the ball,” Tech coach Frank Beamer said Monday of Carden. “And now he’s holding it just a second longer than he normally would. Then we’ve got some guys who I think are pretty good pass-rushers. James Gayle: great effort, great football game. J.R. (Collins) same thing and Dadi Nicolas. He’s very athletic, and when he gets in the game, just extremely productive.”

Beamer expects the Hokies’ defensive line to be even deeper this week with heretofore gimpy Tyrel Wilson back to full speed. He gives Tech yet another effective edge rusher.

Beamer also anticipates Marshall, indeed all of the Hokies’ future opponents, mirroring ECU’s tactic of daring Logan Thomas to beat them with the pass.

“I don’t think there’s a question,” Beamer said. “I think most people will probably take that approach.”

Of ECU’s eight-in the-box approach, Beamer said: “That’s tough. But still, you can get some hats on people, and it’s just a matter of executing a little bit better. I think the other side of that is, if people are going to commit eight people to the box, you gotta be able to throw it. I thought we did a fairly good job of that.”

Thomas completed 25-of-43 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns. But the Hokies rushed for only 53 yards and scored 28 fewer points against ECU than Old Dominion did.

ODU averaged 3.9 yards per carry against the Pirates, more than twice as many as Tech’s 1.6, and Monarchs quarterback Taylor Heinicke passed for 370 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.

Such struggles are nothing new for the Hokies. In Tech’s final six games last year against FBS opponents – Clemson, Miami, Florida State, Boston College, Virginia and Rutgers -- and the first two this season, the offense produced two or less touchdowns.

Might Marshall cure what ails the Hokies’ O? Well, the Herd, which opened with victories over Miami of Ohio (52-14) and Gardner-Webb (55-0) before stumbling last week at Ohio 34-31, ranks fifth nationally in total defense, albeit against suspect competition

Chuck Heater is Marshall’s first-year defensive coordinator, hired by coach Doc Holliday after the Herd allowed 35-plus points eight times last season. Heater was part of national championship staffs at Notre Dame and Florida, working with Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler at the latter stop.

The Herd’s defense “is very much improved from last year,” Beamer said.

He needs similar progress from his offense, compressed into a week.

“I’m more convinced than ever,” Beamer said Monday night on Tech Talk Live, “that this can be a really good football team.”

I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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