BOGACZYK: By Land or Air, Herd Making Big Moves
The Word on the Herd-Oct. 9, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – In major college football, it’s one thing to have a balanced offense. It’s another to have balance and be prolific, too … and win.
And in its 5-0 start, Marshall has enjoyed all of that. The Herd doesn’t just lead the FBS in total offense at 595.6 yards per game, it has gotten there in equal proportions.
As the Herd (5-0, 1-0 Conference USA) faces Middle Tennessee (4-2, 3-0) at Edwards Stadium on Homecoming Saturday at noon, Coach Doc Holliday’s club has 1,498 rushing yards – only 18 more than it has gained through the air.
Yes, Marshall is the only major college team that has scored more than 40 points in each of the first five games of the season. It also is the only team that averages better than 275 yards both rushing and passing (299.6 rushing, 296.0 passing). The closest to that highly productive balance is Mississippi State (274.4 rushing, 267.4 passing).
In a season in which star senior quarterback Rakeem Cato’s arm was expected to lead the Herd toward a first C-USA title and perhaps a College Football Playoff access bowl berth, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. The emergence of converted tight end Devon "Rockhead" Johnson at running back – he ranks No. 8 nationally in yards per game at 136.0 – has changed plans. The 243-pound Johnson has four 100-yard ground games and his backup, Remi Watson, has two.
That doesn’t mean Cato’s importance has diminished. He’s more important than ever, because the Miamian has helped shape offensive coordinator Bill Legg’s game calls in the run-pass option. It’s what Holliday calls "taking what the defense gives us," or "not trying to fit a square peg into a round hole."
The Herd’s latest experience with this came last Saturday in a 56-14 triumph at Old Dominion. While MU ran for 354 yards, Cato had his first sub-200-yard passing game in his last 33 outings.
"It is crazy," Herd junior right tackle Clint Van Horn said earlier this week of the Herd offense. "It’s crazy it’s so balanced and that’s our quarterback and our running back, right there. Our quarterback checks us into the looks, makes sure that we call the right play.
"He’s not concerned about his yards. I care more about him getting his yards than he does, and that’s the truth. I mean, he came to the sidelines in (the ODU) game, and said, ‘Know what? The pass isn’t working out right now. Let’s run the ball.’
"Those were his exact words, so we’re going to run the ball all day, and that’s those two guys. Whatever the defense gives us, then he’s going to take it."
Prior to the season, Marshall offensive line coach Alex Mirabal said the 2014 front five would "be nastier" than the very successful group that helped pave the way for the Herd’s 10-4 finish and Military Bowl victory in 2013. And although the line has bene shuffled by injury in the first half of the season, Johnson said it’s a dominant bunch.
"The reason I run so physical is that our offensive line is so physical," said Johnson, who was named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Week for his 198-yard, three-touchdown game at ODU. "And like I say each week, I have the best line in the nation. That’s my own opinion. I have the best line in the nation and I wouldn’t trade ‘em for the world, and they’re a physical bunch.
"You watch film, and it’s, ‘Wow!’ And so I want to be like them and bring that physical style to the running back room and have the same thing in the running back room and O-line room, and our run game would be really good.
"If we can just keep it up like we have – keep doing what we’re doing -- everything will be fine."
When Legg sends down the run/pass option play call for Cato, that starts the ball rolling, but Cato putting things into practice – with center Chris Jasperse up front – takes the Herd attack to another level.
"Me, as a quarterback, I’ve got to realize that, and understand what people are trying to do to us," Cato said after the triumph at Old Dominion’s Foreman Field. "And Coach Legg is doing a great job just taking what the defense gives us, and me realizing if it’s a seven-man box, throw the ball, or if it’s a clear box, a ‘running box,’ hand the ball off. And long as I keep doing that, and making big plays for our team, we’ll do well."
"We knew what they were trying to do to us," Cato said. "We understood what they were trying to do to us (take away the pass). I think we did a great of just executing plays calls up front, the line getting to the second level, and running backs doing their job and just hitting the hole and hitting the cutback lanes."
Holliday knows it’s a week-to-week – and even series-to-series – decision on what Legg and Cato figure will work best. The fifth-year Herd coach said there’s no reason to mess with success as the Blue Raiders visit "The Joan" on Saturday.
"You take what the defense gives you," Holliday said at his Tuesday news conference. "Cato has done a tremendous job. He is extremely unselfish and could care less about his stats. What he cares about is winning the football game.
"I think he only had two miscues on Saturday, and it is like that every week. He’s almost perfect as far as making the right decisions and getting us in the right checks. I can’t say enough about what Bill Legg has done with him in coaching him up.
"It’s going to be critical that he has him prepared this week, because this will be the best defense we’ve seen up to this point."