What the Western Kentucky defense is preparing for this week and what the Western Kentucky defense actually sees out of Marshall this Saturday inside Houchens-Smith Stadium could prove to be two different things. The difference could also present itself on the scoreboard.
The Thundering Herd (2-1) have uncharacteristically struggled to run the ball through three games this season. At 104.6 rushing yards per game, MU is 119th in the FBS in that category and has watched its ground numbers shrink exponentially since the start of the year – Marshall rushed for 171 yards at Miami (Ohio), then for just 89 against Eastern Kentucky and then managed only 54 last week at home against North Carolina State.
All that certainly won’t stop the Hilltoppers (1-3) from preparing as if they’re about to face the best rushing team in the league.
“We’ll just try to have good fits in our run game,” WKU linebacker Masai Whyte said. “We know they got two solid backs so we’re just gonna try to get to the ball, try to get downhill as fast as we can, try to wrap up, make plays, make tackles.”
Marshall’s ground-game struggles are head-scratching given it returned two 800-yard backs from a season ago in sophomore Tyler King and senior Keion Davis. King ran for 102 yards and scored in the Herd’s 30-23 win over Western last year in Huntington, W. Va.
That duo was held to 47 yards on 16 runs last week against NCSU – the program that WKU defensive coordinator Clayton White left in 2017.
“Davis and King, they’re really good players,” White said. “I know King played a lot against us last year, Davis is more the bigger back who can kinda do it all. King is the more elusive, speed back out of the backfield. Those guys can take it the distance. We gotta do a great job this week of fitting the run and watching those guys out the backfield as well.”
If Marshall’s struggles on the ground continue then Western’s defensive focus will turn to Isaiah Green. A 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman, Green has played all three games for MU so far after redshirting last year.
Green, an Atlanta native and former three-star prospect who threw for nearly 7,000 yards in high school, has completed 58 percent of his throws thus far and connected on six touchdown passes. But his struggles against EKU and NCSU are correlated with his offense finding less and less success in the run game.
“Any team, whether it’s us or whoever, if you become one dimensional, it becomes a problem,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “We have to do a better job at running the football and we are going to work hard to get that done.”
If the Herd’s ground game does falter once again Saturday, that won’t necessarily be a death knell. Three Marshall receivers – Tyre Brady, One Obialo and Marcel Williams – all have at least 115 yards receiving this year as does Davis and tight end Xavier Gaines. Brady was on course for a 1,000-yard receiving year last year before getting injured against the Hilltoppers.
Perhaps part of Marshall’s offensive struggles can be attributed to the implementation and development of a new offensive scheme under first-year coordinator Tim Cramsey. He arrived at MU after being a part of one of best offenses in the nation (in all of Division I) last year at Sam Houston State.
It’s up to Ramsey to help Green get the ball rolling.
“He’s a young guy so we’re gonna come in and just try to throw some blitzes at him,” Whyte said of Green. “Just change up the game – some pressures, show some blitzes in front of space so he has to use his arm to beat us.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop