BOGACZYK: Johnson's Record Rushing Grounds the Owls
The Word on the Herd-Oct. 25, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - It was a Band-Aid sort of football game Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Unbeaten and nationally ranked Marshall was nicked and dinged in a Conference USA game that featured Johnson and Johnson, but when it came time to stop the bleeding, Coach Doc Holliday's team had the remedy.
Give the ball to Devon Johnson. And although Florida Atlantic gave the Thundering Herd the kind of battle it hadn't faced at any point this season, Owls star quarterback Jaquez Johnson couldn't produce the kind of plays at crunch time that the other Johnson on the field delivered.
The Herd's Johnson had his seventh 100-yard rushing game by halftime, but FAU had a 16-14 lead. By the finish, the Marshall junior - and tight end transplant -- had a school-record 272 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and Marshall (8-0, 4-0) blanked FAU in the second half for a 35-16 triumph.
Entering the day, only two FBS backs had run for more yards in a single game this season than the 6-foot-2, 243-pound Johnson produced as he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in his eighth game at the position - the earliest in any season for any Herd back in history.
With 1,203 yards this season, the bullish, bruising runner nicknamed "Rockhead" became the 10th rusher in Herd annals with a 1,200-yard season. He scored on a 58-yarder on Marshall's first play. He had a 62-yarder for a second-quarter score. And with the Herd trying to protect what was a tenuous lead in the final 14 minutes, the Richlands, Va., native ran for 66- and 7-yard TDs.
"I wasn't even aware of (the record) until they said it over the (public address) speakers, but all the credit goes to the linemen," Johnson said. "It's their record; I couldn't have done it without them. They hold that, not me."
And all four of his touchdowns came on the very same play call.
"It's just a good old-fashioned inside zone," said Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg, whose attack piled up 546 yards at 9.3 yards per play. "The last TD was the same play; it just wasn't a long run.
"They had a nose guard to the front side of the play, so we doubled the nose guard up to the play-side linebacker and on the backside of the play they had a defensive tackle. And depending on where the backside linebacker was, we doubled him up to that guy or we walled him off and ran the tackle around.
"It's a base play, our Day 1, first-day install, a primary deal. We're going to run that sucker 15-20 times a game. The last one was a different formation because the defense was lined up differently, but it was the same play."
The No. 22/23-ranked Herd didn't take the lead for good until the final 18 minutes, when quarterback Rakeem Cato found his Miami and Marshall buddy Tommy Shuler for a 21-yard scoring pass - moving Cato's NCAA major-college record for consecutive games with a TD pass to 40.
Florida Atlantic (3-5, 2-2) ran tempo - and with great success - on the Herd in the first half. At the break, FAU had run 53 plays to the Herd's 25, and the Owls' had more than a 2-to-1 bulge in time of possession.
The second half was a different story as the Herd won a 12th straight home game - and ninth in a row overall - despite failing to score at least 40 points for a 14th consecutive regular-season game.
The Herd defense started getting off the field on third down with more success, and a fourth-down pass breakup by cornerback Darryl Roberts from the Marshall 6 on the opening play of the fourth quarter thwarted an FAU drive that could have put the visitors back in front.
"We had to go in at halftime and make a couple of adjustments," said linebacker D.J. Hunter, one of four Herd players with double-digit tackles. "We knew Coach (Chuck) Heater (defensive coordinator) would come in and put us in the right position, and we came out and executed. We did what we had to do, slowed it down a little bit, and shut it down.
"'Swagg' (Roberts) made a great play, a great play ... (FAU's challenge) made us come together. We faced a little bit of adversity in first half, but we came out and did what we had to do."
Three plays after Roberts' big play, Johnson burst through a gaping hole for the third time in the game for a 66-yard score and a 28-16 Marshall advantage. On the Herd's final scoring drive, Johnson broke Ron Darby's single-game MU rushing record of 262 yards, set at Western Carolina in 1988. Johnson did it in only 24 carries. Darby's mark came on 47 rushes.
Johnson's 11.3 yards per play on the ground is also a Marshall record for rushers who had at least 20 carries in a game. His four TDs in a game are the most by a Herd back since Ahmad Bradshaw had five in a 2006 win over UTEP, and Johnson' 17 scores for the season are the most since Bradshaw had 21 in '06.
"I thought he'd be a good running back," Legg said when asked about the move of Johnson from tight end to the backfield just prior to preseason camp in August. "I never thought he'd do this, and anybody who says they thought he'd do what he's done is breaking Rule 1.
"So, I thought he'd be a good player there when we moved him. I never doubted that, but to gain 272 on 24 carries with four touchdowns, did I ever dream of that happening? I'd be lying if I told you I did."
Some of the Herd's second-half moxie was rooted in offensive frustration, Legg admitted.
"We were hit-and-miss, dropping some balls, missing some reads, missing a block, that kind of stuff," Legg said of the Marshall mindset out of halftime. "It just happened to be I was mad and I was going to pound the ball.
"I was mad because I didn't think we were making plays we should be making. We were misconnecting for one reason or another so we'd run the ball successfully here and there, so I said, OK, let's go old-school here.
"I told Cato, `We're going NFL mentality.' The last two drives, he knew. The last one, it was bleed the clock. You know the NFL drive ... run first down, run it second down, throw it when you need to, run the play clock, bleed the clock, don't play with your hair on fire. And hopefully find a way put it into the end zone. And we did."
With the Herd heading into a bye week before visiting Southern Miss (3-5, 1-3) on Nov. 8, Marshall will get to heal what aches. Holliday said Johnson is one of those who needs a break.
"He's a tremendous player," said Holliday, whose team has won 14 of its last 15 games. "I won't sit here and tell you that I knew all of that was going to happen. I knew he was a really good football player, but didn't know I was going to move him to tailback and get the production we've gotten from him.
"I knew he was really a good player. But he's not a good player, he's a great player. He's physical, runs a great pad level, has great ball skills, and is a tremendous football player. I'm glad he's on our side because I wouldn't want to have to tackle that guy."
SEEN `N' HERD: The only Marshall first-year running back with more rushing yards than Johnson's 1,203 was Doug Chapman, who ran for 1,238 in his freshman season of 1996 ... Marshall's 9.4 yards per rushing play was the fourth-highest average in school history and all of the top six average games have come in the last 14 games (and the last calendar year) ... The 18 tackles apiece by linebackers Jermaine Holmes and Neville Hewitt matched the number by Hunter in a 2012 double-overtime loss at East Carolina. The last Herd player with more tackles was linebacker Mario Harvey, with 21 in a 38-23 win over Tulane in the 2010 season finale ... Johnson has 10 rushes for 30 or more yards this season and six of 50 yards or more ... Johnson's seven 100-yard games - he had 91 versus Ohio in his other start - ties the Marshall major college recorded for a single season (Bradshaw in 2006 and Darius Marshall in 2008). The overall school mark is 10, reached three times in Chris Parker (1993-95) in the Division I-AA era ... Cato's 40-game TD pass streak is topped by only two passers in NCAA history, both in lower divisions -- 46 games by Mike Reilly, Central Washington, 2005-08 (Division II record); and 42 games for Dominic Randolph, Holy Cross, 2006-09 (FCS record). Cato matched the 40?@by Bill Borchert, Mount Union, 1994-97 (Division III record) ... Herd junior Tyler Williams' 51.4 average on five punts versus FAU is the best of his career and No. 5 all-time in a Herd single game. The record is 63.0 by Curtis Head at Toledo, in the 2001 Mid-American Conference title game. Williams has nine career boots of 60 or more yards ... The Herd's nine-game win streak trails only those of second-ranked Florida State (23) and top-ranked Mississippi State (10).