After much deliberation, Purdue and Jeff Brohm announced that former Marshall Defensive Coordinator Brad Lambert would be taking over the headset from Bob Diaco. Lambert, a former defensive coordinator for Wake Forest and Marshall and head coach of Charlotte, brings a wealth of experience to the job after starting his coaching career at Marshall in 1990.
We’ve got plenty of time (so much time) to look back on his early career, but his most recent stint at Marshall has the most pertinent data points for the 2021 Purdue season. Lambert was hired by former Thundering Heard head coach Doc Holliday in 2019 to take control of the defense, and Lambert was extremely successful in his short tenure.
As I mentioned, we’ve got plenty of time to get into the details before the 2021 season kicks off. I think a brief introduction with some “big picture” stats is a good starting point to understand what Purdue is getting in Lambert.
Marshall Scoring Defense
2018 (Before Lambert) - 21.8 Points Per Game (27th Nationally)
2019 - 25 Points Per Game (44th Nationally)
2020 - 13 Pointer Per Game (1st Nationally)
On the surface, this is incredibly impressive. After taking a slight step back in his first year, Lambert put together the best scoring defense in the nation in 2020.
Looking a little deeper, and....man, Conference USA was bad in 2020. North Texas had the best offense in the conference, but Marshall didn’t play them. UTSA had the second best offense, but Marshall missed them as well.
Louisiana Tech had the third best offense, averaging 28.4 points per game, and the Thundering Herd managed to limit them to 11 point below their season average. You can’t control the other teams on your schedule, but holding a decent offense like La Tech significantly below their season average for points is an indicator that trash C-USA offense isn’t the only reason Marshall had such an impressive defense.
Marshall Total Defense
2018 (Before Lambert) - 338.7 Yards Per Game (25th Nationally)
2019 - 379.6 Yards Per Game (57th Nationally)
2020 - 279.4 Yards Per Game (2nd Nationally)
As you can see, Lambert took over a solid defense, and took a step back in 2019 after losing several key pieces from the 2018 team, including the 3 top tacklers. It didn’t take Lambert long to rebuild, and his 2020 defense was one of the best in the nation, albeit against some rather....somnolent offenses in Conference USA.
The best offense Marshall faced in 2020 was 23rd ranked (at the time) Appalachian State. The Mountaineers averaged 33.8 points in 2020 but were held to 7 by Lambert and the Thundering Herd. They also held Buffalo, the 4th rated offense in the nation, to 17 points in a Camellia Bowl loss, but the Bison were without do-everything star running back Jaret Patterson. It’s hard to extrapolate what that means without Patterson on the field, never-the-less, holding any team to 17 points in a bowl game is impressive, regardless of the available personnel.
Marshall Rushing Defense
2018 (Before Lambert) - 104.2 Yards Per Game (8th Nationally)
2019 - 148 Yards Per Game (56th Nationally)
2020 - 95.5 Yards Per Game (4th Nationally)
Much like total defense, you’re not exactly comparing apples to apples when you look at year-to-year performance from a rush defense, especially in Conference USA where offense tends to be cyclical. Rushing does follow the trend of total defense during Lambert’s two years at Marshall. He inherited an elite (in terms of stats) unit, suffered a drop off in his first year, and then recovered to put together another elite unit in 2020.
Again, 2020 was a down year for Conference USA in terms of offense, but the Camellia Bowl against Buffalo is a legit look at Marshall’s run defense. Even without Patterson, the Bulls had a legit run game led by former 1000 yard rusher (and Purdue grad transfer target) Kevin Mack.
Marshall gave up more rushing yards to Buffalo than to any other opponent in 2020, but they made the Bison work hard to get them. Kevin Mack ended up with 138 yards and Buffalo ended up with 155 rushing yards total for the game, but it took Mack 35 carries to get 138, averaging only 3.9 yards per carry. That’s a significant drop in rushing yards per carry on the season for Mack.
Marshall’s offense was putrid and couldn’t stay on the field but the run defense held late into the game, only allowing 1 second half touchdown despite being on the field for most of the game.
Marshall Passing Yards Allowed
2018 (Before Lambert) - 234.5 (73rd Nationally)
2019 - 231.6 (75th Nationally)
2020 - 183.9 (11th Nationally)
I think passing yards allowed is one of the more interesting stats when it comes to Lambert. It’s the one spot where you don’t see a significant drop from the year prior to Lambert arriving to his first year. In fact, the pass defense improved slightly in Lambert’s first year and then improved dramatically in his second year.
Again, this has something to do with Lambert’s defense and something to do with Conference USA not being very good this year. Marshall didn’t face the best quarterback in Conference USA, because Grant Wells (a redshirt freshman) was on their team.
Lambert’s defense did, however, put the clamps on 2nd team All-Conference quarterback Asher O’Hara of Middle Tennessee. O’Hara threw for 241 yards and 1 touchdown but it took him 44 attempts. That works out to 5.4 yards per attempt, which is more than a yard off his season average of 6.8 yards per attempt. More importantly, they held MTSU to 14 points, which was their worst C-USA performance in 2020.
I’ll look at some individual components of Marshall’s rushing and pass defense over the following weeks, but overall, it’s hard not to be impressed with Lambert’s 2020 defense. At the same time, it’s hard to parse out how much of his success was due to a dominant defense and how much was due to C-USA having a down year on offense conference wide.
I’m going to assume it’s a little bit of A and a little bit of B.
It is silly to write off Lambert’s performance in 2020 because of a down conference. At the same time, it’s a little disingenuous to build up the Marshall defense based solely on their stats, because C-USA was terrible.
We’ll need to dig a little deeper to get to the truth, but time, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently stated, is on my side.
Only 8 months until kick off.