BOGACZYK: Herd Offense a Multiple-Choice Question This Season
The Word on the Herd-September 18, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – It’s one thing to impress the fans, the pollsters, the pundits.
It’s another to impress the guy in charge, and a guy who usually is very hard to impress … and that’s what Marshall’s offense – with its production and versatility – has done.
As the Thundering Herd (3-0) heads to Akron (1-1) for a 2 p.m. Saturday kickoff, Marshall Coach Doc Holliday likes what he sees from offensive coordinator Bill Legg’s attack that has produced back-to-back 700-yard games with two veterans -- quarterback Rakeem Cato and center Chris Jasperse – holding the reins.
"I don’t think there is any question that it is," Holliday answered Tuesday at his weekly news conference when asked about the Herd’s "complete" offense.
The difference between Marshall’s prolific attacks in 2012 and 2013 – the Herd averaged more than 500 yards per game in each of those years – and this season’s version is the combination of depth and variety at running back and production from the outside receivers.
It shows in some numbers.
Marshall is the only team in major college football with more than 800 rushing yards and 1,000 passing yards (860 and 1,001). The Herd’s 8.2 yards per play ranks third in FBS. Only Arkansas has two running backs averaging more than the individual averages of MU’s Devon Johnson (126.3 ypg) and Stew Butler (93.5).
There have been 10 performances of 700 yards total offense in FBS through Week 3. Only the Herd and Conference USA East Division foe Western Kentucky have two of those.
"The difference from two years ago, it’s big-time," Jasperse said earlier this week. "Nobody knows what you’re going to do. Back then (2012), everybody knew Cato was going to throw for 400 yards a game. That’s what we did. That was us. We didn’t run the ball that much.
"And now, you have to pick between both and you have to figure out which one you’re going to stop. So it’s hard for a defense to come in and say, ‘Are we going to stop 12 (Cato)? Are we going to stop the run? Are we going to stop the receivers? What are we going to do?’
"So, now they have to prepare for everything and try to do it all, and you can’t do that. You have to try to pick something (an offense is) good at, and it’s hard for somebody to pick that on us, which is great because when somebody picks one thing, we do the other and just keep working on that."
Holliday and Jasperse agreed that the play and production of junior Davonte Allen and redshirt freshman Angelo Jean-Louis at the outside receiver spots have made an impact of what the Herd can and can’t do.
"I don’t think there is any question that we didn’t get the production on the outside a year ago, and it hurts," Holliday said. "It’s kind of amazing offensively that we were able to do it a year ago without that threat on the outside. It has helped with Tommy (Shuler, slot receiver with two 100-catch seasons), our tight ends and our running game … anytime that you can stretch the field out there.
"The one thing that Ohio tried to do (in a 44-14 loss last Saturday) was to still play one-on-one on the outside and we took advantage of that. We were able to get huge production. If those guys can continue to make plays on the outside, then we will be fine and it will help us overall as an offense, whether it be Tommy or the running game."
Holliday said that in the 3-0 start, the Herd receiving corps "has been the best since I have been here (four-plus seasons), there’s no question. Also, (true freshman slot receiver) Hyleck Foster did some good things and he is going to be a good player, too. I like where we are now, we just have to continue to get better."
Jasperse said that can happen, as did Legg last Saturday after Marshall piled up 705 yards total offense on the rival Bobcats, a week after rolling for 724 in a 48-7 rout of FCS member Rhode Island.
"It’s big, the way we’re able to run the ball now," Jasperse said. "It’s huge for our passing game. It takes the pressure off Cato but also with our receivers, the outside guys, takes a lot of pressure off us. So, we’re working really well together right now on offense, and we just got to be able to take what the defense gives us, and we’ve done a good job with that in the last two weeks."
So, in the graduate-student center’s mind, what’s made more of a difference, the run game upgraded by 243-pound addition Johnson, or those X and Z receivers.
"I’d have to say both," Jasperse said. "You can’t take either one for granted. The receivers are playing phenomenal, the way they go up and attack the ball and the way they’re getting open is big-time, and it helps out our inside guys and it pulls (the defense) outside, so now they’re all not stacked in the box.
"And as long as we can make the running game go, they have to play somewhere in-between if they want to stop both. So, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing and we’re going to be all right.
"The run game, three guys … you’ve got ‘Rockhead’ (Johnson) looking for contact, he’ll take you down, run between the tackles. Stew going to spin and make you miss, do what he does, get 10 yards at a time like he did on Saturday. Then, you’ve got Remi (Watson), who is your hybrid guy and does both.
"So, it’s good to have all those guys who not only are capable of running the ball, but capable of getting us a touchdown on every play."
Here’s another way to look at how the Herd offense has changed. In 2012, 56 percent of Marshall’s plays were passes. This season to date, 56 percent are rushing plays. And the Herd is getting more from its ground game, too.
Marshall already has 27 runs of 10 or more yards in three games. In 14 games last season, there were 94 rushes for double-digit yards.
"Devon Johnson brings a physicality to that position," Holliday said. "(Running backs coach) Chris Barclay has done a tremendous job with it -- not only with Devon, but with Stew and Remi in there. They are doing a better job with picking up blitzes. They are all more complete running backs than they have been since I have been here.
‘I knew (Johnson) would bring stability to that position. He’s a guy there that I can totally trust. I knew he would bring some physicality to it. He rubs off on the other guys at that position. That meeting room is a fun room to go into right now. He’s been good for Stew and Remi.
"It’s been the same way with the wideouts. You send in a player like Angelo Jean-Louis, a guy that all of a sudden starts making plays, and it’s contagious. There’s no doubt we’re better overall at both of those positions."
Now, the Herd faces a one-time Mid-American Conference foe that spreads things, too. And speaking of yards, the Akron-Marshall series produced the most prolific total offense game – 1,249 combined yards -- in Herd history. In Marshall’s 50-33 home win in 2001, the Herd had 726 yards to 523 for the Zips.
Marshall feels pretty good these days about its three-headed offense, whether you’re talking quarterback, running back and receivers, or the three guys doing the play-calling in Legg, Cato and Jasperse.
"We look at the defense and take what they give us," Jasperse said. "Coach Legg might see it before (from the coaches’ booth in the pressbox), then Cato might see a certain look or front and he’ll check into a pass or run play. Or, sometimes I don’t like the protection, so I’ll turn around and say, ‘Hey, Cato, we don’t want to do that; change the play.’ And he does that.
"So, the three of us really work together and we kind of go down the line, and we feel like one of us is going to see it. The good thing about it is we have three guys who have been around a lot of football, with Coach Legg, Cato and myself, and we can try among ourselves to get in the perfect play."