The football coaches were sitting in cushy blue chairs atop the stage inside the Renaissance Hotel on Thursday afternoon, participating in a Military Bowl question-and-answer session during a luncheon in downtown Washington D.C. Players for both Maryland and Marshall were watching from the audience, their attention divided between hearing the responses and polishing off cheesecake.
Next to Coach Randy Edsall, Terrapins quarterback C.J. Brown held a microphone and listened to Comcast SportsNet’s Rob Carlin, the event’s moderator and a Maryland graduate. “No offense to the defense,” Carlin said, “but nobody has stopped these guys from scoring.” He continued with a query about the Thundering Herd’s attack, ranked seventh nationally in scoring offense, and asked how Maryland planned to curb that. Near the back of the room, nose tackle Darius Kilgo looked up from his plate, crossed his arms and shook his head. Clearly, he felt otherwise.
Still, Marshall presents an imposing challenge for defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and his group. The month-long break between the regular season and bowl games offers coaches the opportunity to either start fresh by implementing an entirely new scheme or tinker with the existing one. Stewart chose the latter.
This trust will be tested against junior quarterback Rakeem Cato, the 2012 Conference USA most valuable player and 2013 offensive player of the year. The Miami native has thrown for 3,579 yards this season with a 59.3 percent completion rate, with 36 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. As he goes, so do the Herd.
“It’s like any football game,” Edsall said. “It gets down to just execution and playing good, fundamental, sound football using good techniques and making sure everybody does their job. There will be a time when he makes a play or two, because he’s that good. But if you stick to your basic principles of doing your job, doing it to the best of your ability, you give yourself a shot to play well.”
Marshall’s offense, which features 1,000-yard rusher Essray Taliaferro and 1,000-yard receiver Tommy Shuler, contains schematic elements of several opponents Maryland has faced this season. The ground game compares to North Carolina State, while Cato and the passing game resemble Old Dominion and quarterback Taylor Heinicke, albeit at a far more prolific level.
Cornerback Dexter McDougle, however, saw something different.
“Their style kind of reminds me of West Virginia, when they had Geno Smith,” the senior, still healing from the fractured shoulder socket against Connecticut, said. “I feel like he uses his feet well to make plays. His receivers are really good at changing their routes, redirecting to what he does. If he gets flushed out of the pocket, they have good hot routes, just not giving up on the play. He’s got a strong arm, some plays where he’s throwing it across the field and the zip on it is amazing. Good leader out there.”
McDougle will spend Friday afternoon, like he has since the Connecticut game, watching from either the sidelines or high above the stadium along press row, but his role as an experienced leader hasn’t changed. Cornerbacks Will Likely and Isaac Goins, the starters tasked with helping limit Cato through the air, still come to McDougle with bountiful questions about scheming for Marshall.
“We’re all in here for the same reason,” McDougle said. “We’re trying to get a win. If there’s a question we need answered or I have a suggestion, I’ll make it. I’m not going to step back. They’re going to do their thing. They’ve been stepping up. I’m real proud of those guys.”