Oct. 22, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – When you’re on the road, going very fast can be an arresting development.
Marshall may test that notion Thursday night at Middle Tennessee in a Conference USA football game. It’s when the Thundering Herd has arrested – so to speak -- its hurry-up offense that coach Doc Holliday’s team has been slowed in more ways than one this season.
In 2012, Marshall led major college football (FBS) with an average of 90.6 offensive plays per game. To get an apples-to-apples comparison, through six games last season, the average was 92.0 plays. This season, the Herd (4-2, 2-0) is at 80.7 plays per game – ranking 60th in the country in total snaps, or middle of the pack.
In the urgency of needing two scores to win 24-23 last time out at FAU, Marshall returned to its old self … and with great success. A year ago, the Marshall offensive line didn’t have the talent and experience it has now, and the defense struggled, so the Herd tried to outscore foes … and finished a frustrating 5-7.
The slower pace was brought about by Holliday in spring ball and August camp in an attempt to help the retooling Herd defense -- under new coordinator Chuck Heater -- get its feet on the ground and establish an identity.
Holliday also said in the preseason that the Herd needed to play slower “when needed,” and it was one of the points of emphasis in camp.
Well, that much improved defense – ranked 10th nationally in total defense at 298.6 yards per game – has what it needed now. The Herd and Cincinnati are the only FBS teams that haven’t allowed a 50-yard play (run, pass, kick or punt return). Marshall is allowing only 4.28 yards per play, behind only Michigan State and three nationally ranked teams-- Virginia Tech, Florida State and Baylor.
So, will Marshall go faster with the ball the second half of the season starting with a national telecast game against the Blue Raiders (3-4, 1-2)?
"We've had some success doing that (playing slower),” Holliday said Monday, “but I do think we have to be able to do what we do well. We've played well slowing the tempo here at home, but we have to be able to do both and do both well.
“We'll mix and match a bit on Thursday night, but we have to be able to play fast and control it when we want to.”
Veteran Herd offensive coordinator Bill Legg said the bottom line is what’s important.
“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to accomplish is a team concept, a team philosophy and we’ve made some tweaks and some adjustments in order to be a better football team,” Legg said. ‘The only stat that really matters are the Ws and Ls. We gained all kinds of yards and did all this and all that last year but at the end of the day, we only won five games. So, that’s the No. 1 thing. That’s what we’re trying to be judged on.
“Now, there are some things that we’ve given up that we’ve got to get back to doing to be honest with you. Being more consistent in the things we are doing is the biggest issue -- being precise and being able to handle zone coverages versus man coverages -- and so right now that perspective is our focus point.
“We’re trying to give them every possible look that Middle Tennessee could give us on every given play, but trying to base it and stay focused on us trying to get better as individuals and collectively as a team.
“We need to be more consistent, regardless of whether we go fast or go moderate tempo, based on how the game’s playing itself out. That – right now – is our focus. We still need to improve, but at the end of the day, we still basing everything less on the statistics, but more on wins and losses.”
Marshall senior tight end Gator Hoskins, asked about tempo, said the ability to rally with quarterback Rakeem Cato at the hurry-up controls was no accident.
“We went back to going our normal tempo (at the end at FAU), moving the ball,” Hoskins said. “When we do that, when we’re going fast, moving the ball, getting on the line, getting set, I don’t think we can be stopped.”
What about what Legg labels a “moderate” pace?
“When we get slowed down, it does give the defense a little more of a chance,” Hoskins admitted. “We’re getting different kinds of looks against us, different things that throw us off track. We just have to get better with our execution in that area and we will. Like coach Holliday says, if we want to be the offense that we need to be, we have to be able to go at both speeds.”
“We were so used to playing fast that it’s been a little bit of an adjustment,” he said of the slower tempo. “There have been times we’ve been very good at it, and been times we’ve been hit-and-miss, and that’s the consistency part that I talked about, where we need to get better.”
Legg said that no matter the pace, the Herd needs to have success on first and third downs. And the rally in the last 10 minutes at FAU send the Herd a message in more ways than one.
“Winning was huge as a football team, winning one like that,” Legg said. “But that’s one of those deals where the game looks like it’s going OK, and the score’s low, and we’re inconsistent in the first half.
“We make a play, then we don’t make a play -- and that doesn’t allow us to convert a third down, or doesn’t allow us to win on a first down, which are two of the biggest things we stay focused on. So, it’s a tight football game.
“And now, all of a sudden, it’s time for us to go, and we kind of got a little bit into our comfort zone because we’re more experienced at doing that (playing fast) than we are the moderate thing. And, thank goodness, we are more experienced at going fast, because we had to go fast then, we had no choice -- because we had to get two possessions we had to score on in order to win the football game.”
Legg said the Herd won’t lose focus on its ultimate goal, one that wasn’t reached last year – whether it’s getting 70 or 90 plays snaps per game.
“The thing I’m happiest about so far is the fact we’re undefeated in the league and we’re 4-2 -- because we weren’t that a year ago (2-4, 1-1),” he said. “And we just need to be more consistent. We’ve got to win our individual battles, we’ve got to win collectively as a group.
“Last week is really the first time that I didn’t think we did a good enough job on first downs, and it put us in some situations where we were in third-and-longs, and those are harder to make. But in the second half, I thought we did a much better job on first downs, which allowed us some manageable third downs, and we ended up jumping our third-down conversion rate up to 50 percent (9-of-18 for the game) and that’s our goal.”
Marshall is averaging 5.58 yards per play, down from 6.07 through six games last season. The Herd is 49-of-98 (50 percent) for the season on third-down conversions, tied for 14th nationally. The red-zone conversion figures are 26-for-29 (89.7 percent), tied for 19th.
“Those are the things we’re focused on,” Legg said. “It’s not about points, not about yards. It’s about winning the football game, and in order to help this team win a football game, we need to win on first down, so we can convert on third down. And when we get into the red zone, we need to score.”