BOGACZYK: Litton Debut Ranks with Herd Top QBs
The Word on the Herd-Sept. 21, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Only one freshman quarterback in Marshall history has connected for more touchdowns in his first start than the four delivered by Chase Litton in his debut last Saturday against Norfolk State.
It was Chad Pennington, with five … but two of those were interceptions, returned for scores by UT-Chattanooga in the future Herd legend’s debut 20 seasons ago in a 35-32 Herd road victory.
“I’ll be sure to tell him you said that,” Litton said, smiling, on Monday.
Litton was born seven days after that Sept. 30, 1995 Pennington unveiling in which he threw six picks – not to be confused with pick-six -- to the Mocs.
Things obviously turned out more than OK for Chad, and it seems Litton is poised to perhaps become the latest in a lengthening line of Herd marquee QBs.
On a 24-of-31 day for 270 yards and with no picks, Litton found 10 receivers for completions. In Herd history, only Rakeem Cato (multiple times) and Pennington (at Miami of Ohio in 1998) have had more receivers in one game. Cato’s 13 in a 2012 loss at West Virginia is the Herd record. He also had 12 connections in a 2012 loss at Purdue.
Opportunity knocked for Litton when Coach Doc Holliday’s two-game starter, Michael Birdsong, was found to have a right (throwing) shoulder injury. The true freshman turned potential – and what was originally thought to be an occasional-series debut -- into peak performance.
“I knew on Sunday I was going to get a chance to get in, and as soon as I found out from Doc that very next day I was in the film room for 2-3 hours,” Litton said Monday. “Because I knew if I got a chance, I wanted to never look back. And I just knew that once I thought I had a chance, I prepared like I was the starter, I was the guy, because I never knew when my time would be called, so when I got the opportunity, I was prepared and ready to go.”
Had Litton been a relief pitcher for Birdsong, the approach might have been more harried … like Litton having to prove what he could do with fewer chances. Named the starter after Tuesday’s practice, the 6-foot-6 true freshman from Tampa, Fla., could take a different approach, right?
“Yeah, whether I would have started or come in the second half, I’d have prepared the same way because I knew whether I got one chance or a hundred of ‘em, that one chance I had to make count. And I knew going into the game the tendencies the defense had, the coverages they used and so we found ways to attack what they gave us and that helped out.”
Herd running back Devon Johnson was the closest physically to Litton on the field, and the senior who helped protect Litton couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He also said he approached his assignments in blitz pickup with more diligence because of Litton’s situation as the second true freshman to play – joining walk-on receiver Nick Mathews -- for the Herd this season.
“Yeah, I knew that I really had to play well and I did -- graded out perfect for the first time in my career 49-of-49 (plays) -- and I knew I had to do that for a true freshman,” said Johnson, who also rushed for 122 yards. “I knew I had to run the ball hard, pick up the pass (blitz) and for him to do what he did, that was very impressive for a true freshman quarterback.
“Before a play, he looked at me and said, ‘If this player does this, I’m going to pull it out and throw it.’ and I’m like … this is like the second series. He’s letting me know what he’s going to do before the snap, and I was very impressed, like ‘Wow, OK.’
“And a minute later he pulled it out and threw the ball and completed it and I thought, ‘This kid’s going to be good.’
“His confidence … He didn’t act like a first-year starter out there. He was very confident in himself. He knew he was going to make the plays he was given and when his number was called to start, he made the plays and that’s what I love about him – his confidence.”
The Herd (2-1) heads for Kent State (1-2) on Saturday, where Litton knows the challenge from the Golden Flashes – ranked third in total defense in FBS (199.0 yards per game) with two games against Big Ten Conference teams – will be a different degree of difficulty than was FCS member Norfolk State. “When I ran out of the tunnel, it just felt a little antsy, a little anxious,” Litton said of his first outing. “I don’t know what it was. But as soon as I ran onto the field and for the first play, I was fine. During the week, (I thought) ‘That first pass might be a little high.’ But I felt fine.
“As soon as I had ‘Rockhead’ (Johnson) next to me and I was behind (center Mike) Selby and the line, it felt natural, felt like practice. And I’ve just got to go into this week as the same thing, -- be calm cool and play football.”
Veteran Herd offensive coordinator Bill Legg saw Litton’s commitment to success increase in the QB room early in the week. If he were impressed then, he was more so after the victory.
“To his credit, he worked extremely hard,” Legg said postgame. “He spent a lot of extra time studying and knew what he was going to get based on their secondary pre-snap and so forth. The mental aspect is what I was most impressed with. We’ve always known he has a ton of talent since the day we first started recruiting him. That mental part of the game, though, really took a huge leap this week.”
Litton said what he learned most prior to his first snap was crucial.
“It’s to just to be more prepared,” he said. “In high school, I wasn’t in the film room as much as I was this past week and I know I’m going to have to be in it twice as long this week. Just the preparation … whether it’s me, Gunnar (Holcombe) or Birdsong, we all prepare the same way. I’m fully confident we all could have gone in and done the same thing.
“Coach Legg gave us a lot of plays, a lot of chances for me to pick different receivers and get them the ball. It wasn’t that we had anything planned, like ‘We’re going to hit this guy this time and then that guy,’ or any amount of times. I just happened. Our receivers rotated and every single one made a play.”
And while Litton was pitching and 10 players were catching, he also impressed the guy who was delivering the ball to the rookie Herd QB.
“We worked with him in spring and in (August) camp and as far as quarterback-center, quarterback-offensive line, the bond is pretty good because we played with him before,” Selby said. “But he was calm back there.
“I was really surprised with him being a young quarterback, his first start and everything, figured he’d have panicked a little bit more, scrambled a little bit more, got out of that pocket. But he did a good job of sitting in there and waiting until the last second. He made his reads quickly and only getting out when he had to. I was really surprised about that.”
Selby did have one valuable piece of advice in trying to calm the newcomers to major college football. “Just after that first series (on which the Herd drove 12 plays for a Nick Smith field goal to trail 7-3),” Selby said. “You could tell he was a little nervous early on. He didn’t really show it, but being a center you hear the voice, hear everything, and I could tell he was a little nervous.
“So, after that first series, I said, ‘Hey, man, you’ve to speak up a little, be a little louder.’ And we fixed that right away and he did a great job … He stayed calm; that was the biggest thing. There never was panic back there. And when he had to get out, he got out. And when he stayed in, he made the throw.” Litton knows that his play in Week 3 will help him in Week 4, but an eye-opening .774 passing percentage and four touchdowns speaks volumes.
“We’re not done yet,” Litton said when asked what a four-touchdown debut said to him. “I enjoyed it, spent Saturday night with my family and it was back in the weight room (Sunday) and back in the film room today.
“The experience will help me the most. I know it was only one game, but getting my feet wet a little bit helps. Get that first game under me, the first snaps under me, it definitely felt good. But to me, this is the first time I’m playing Kent State, first time playing on the road.
“I have to go in same mindset as last week – and that’s to win.”