Oct. 2, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - If anyone still is surprised about the productivity of Marshall's offense, then they haven't been paying attention for a month.
Now, September has been ripped from the calendar and the Thundering Herd starts a run of seven games in eight weeks against Conference USA opposition. Marshall will try to do to league foes what the Herd has managed - albeit in losses that tested Coach Doc Holliday's team.
The teams that downed the Herd (2-3, 1-0) - now-No. 8 West Virginia, Ohio and Purdue - are a combined 12-1, with the loss by the Boilermakers in the final seconds, 20-17, on the road to current No. 9 Notre Dame.
What do those teams have in common besides a win over Marshall? Well, it seems that quality hasn't had an impact on the Herd's quantity. None has slowed MU's nation's-fastest offensive pace guided by quarterback Rakeem Cato, and there hasn't been much stopping of an attack that averages 556.0 yards per game, either.
Another quality foe - C-USA best-in-the-West Tulsa (4-1, 2-0) - comes to Edwards Stadium on Saturday for the Herd's 111th Homecoming, and if Marshall is going to be a serious challenger for a conference football title, the Herd has to keep on keepin' on, as they say.
"Conference USA ... these are the games that really count more for us," veteran Herd right guard John Bruhin said Monday, "They're all really important now, so we've got to come in with a focus.
"Playing the kind of teams we have, they definitely prepare you. Playing teams like the ones we have help us sharpen our tools so when we get into conference play, we're ready. Playing teams like that is going to help us out a lot."
The Golden Hurricane visits with the top sack attack among 124 FBS teams, while allowing 338.0 yards per game, 34th nationally in total defense. Tulsa ranks tied for fifth (with UCLA) in offensive plays at 415, with the Herd tops at 462 (or 92.4 per game).
"I think (opponents) know we're going to go that fast now," Bruhin said, "but I still think it's a big advantage because no matter what they know, they still have to get their defense lined up, still have to get their calls in.
"So, as fast as we're going, I think it puts a defense at a disadvantage when they're trying to stop it. I am surprised just how fast we're able to get up and get set and run our plays myself. Last year we tried to go fast; it seems like everything is working and flowing a lot better this year.
"Coach (Bill) Legg (offensive coordinator) sat us down before the season started and said he wanted to run a lot more plays this year and all that. And we were like, `All right,' we tried to run a lot of plays last year, we'll see what happens. Now, we come out and run almost 100 plays a game. Who expected that?"
Tulsa routed the Herd, 59-17, last season, and while the Herd no doubt recalls that long trip to Oklahoma, Bruhin said, "It's in the past, it's history. We've got them at our place, so we just have to go out and play our game."
Since C-USA went through realignment in 2005 that brought Marshall and Tulsa into the league, the Golden Hurricane's 42 league wins share the lead with Houston. Tulsa also has been the top divisional crossover club, going 19-6 against East teams.
The Herd realizes the importance its Homecoming date could play in the C-USA scheme of things as the season enters its second half after this one.
"Conference is what we play for," Marshall left tackle Jordan Jeffries said. "We play to win a championship, and that's a conference championship. We started off with conference win against Rice, which was great for us.
"Tulsa is picked to win its division, so this is going to be a huge game for us, not only because it's a conference game that will put us on top of our division, but it will represent how we compete against the other division, so it's a very important game.
"I think we just need to do what we do on offense. I think it's going to be a shootout; they have pretty potent offense as well. Their quarterback from last season is gone (G.J. Kinne), but from what we've seen on film, his replacement (Nebraska transfer Cody Green) is a pretty good quarterback. It will be interesting to see how we compare against them."
The junior tackle added that the mindset is that it's more about the Herd offense and continuing its fast-paced trend, rather than what the opposition brings, whether it's last week, this week or next week.
"Nothing about what we've done really surprises me," Jeffries said of the Herd attack. "From the time in summer camp and even back into spring ball, we felt like we'd have a pretty potent offense, running game, passing game.
"I didn't know we'd be putting up the numbers we have - I'm not sure anyone expected that - but at the same time it's what we want and it's what we've worked for. It's good to see that what we're practicing is what works in the games.
"I never thought we could play this fast. But in the summertime, during conditioning and running more than I've ever run in my entire life, I knew that it was for a reason, and now we're seeing the results."
Bruhin said the Herd linemen have seen Tulsa's blitz packages previously, but he acknowledged that keeping Cato's jersey clean will bring another challenge to an improved line that has had to patch and fill because of early bumps and bruises.
Both linemen said they expect Tulsa to bring to town a challenge not much different from what the Herd has faced to date.
"Our No. 1 focus is to keep them off Cato, give him time to make reads, to make throws down the field," Jeffries said. "I know they're going to be coming for us. And hopefully we'll be doing what we've been doing."