BOGACZYK: Van Horn Likes Forward Push of Herd Run Game
The Word on the Herd-Nov. 4, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Before Clint Van Horn stamped himself as an all-conference offensive tackle for Marshall, his formative years in Beckley following football were spent as a West Virginia fan.
The Thundering Herd? When he considered Huntington’s team, he hardly considered it thundering. Van Horn thought more of the kind of game Coach Doc Holliday’s team played in 2011 and ’12, in an airy Conference USA where the game was often called "basketball on grass" – and previously when Marshall football was rooted in pass-and-catch names like Pennington, Moss, Leftwich and Watts.
Now, at right tackle for the nationally ranked and unbeaten Herd, the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Van Horn finds himself as a key part of a power running attack that’s piled up an average of 290 yards per game, led by first-year back Devon Johnson’s 1,203 yards.
The notion Van Horn is enjoying himself – and not just because the Herd is 8-0 – would be an assumption as safe as Holliday’s job.
And on Election Day’s eve, he even admitted he and his fellow linemen campaign for it with offensive line coach Alex Mirabal.
"We dream about that," Van Horn said Monday of the Herd line using the ground game as a badge of honor. "We’re always in Coach Mirabal’s ear and he’s always in (offensive coordinator) Coach (Bill) Legg’s ear … run the football, inside zone, wide zone, power, power.
"It’s there. Sometimes, even if it’s not there, pride gets ahold of you and you say, ‘Let’s do it,’ just because you get so excited about it. We like carnage. We like taking guys and moving them against their will. That’s just the kind of mentality Mirabal has brought to our offensive line."
The redshirt junior – Van Horn came to MU as a walk-on grayshirt in the fall of 2010, Holliday’s first season – said he never thought he’d see so much yard-gobbling by the Herd on the ground.
"Absolutely not," said Van Horn, who will make his 17th career start Saturday night when Marshall visits Southern Miss. "I’m going to be honest. Even when I was here at first, the mentality in that offensive line room wasn’t where it needed to be. I’m not going to single certain guys out, but as a group, they were soft. There was no continuity.
"And for (the power run game) to happen while I’m here -- and being a part of it -- that evolution is just special to me. The brand of guys that Mirabal recruits and brings here, how he coaches, his style … It’s just brought a different element to this offense, and we’re not happy to be just running 100, 90 plays a game to beat the defense.
"We don’t have to worry about wearing them out with 90 plays. We can just move them out of the way now. It doesn’t matter how many plays now. You look back at how many offensive plays we’ve run in a few of our recent games -- it’s in the 50s, maybe the 60s. So, we don’t have to rely at all on the passing game, on wearing teams out. We can rely on the ground game, not totally, but it’s one of the more important elements in our offense."
Van Horn’s reference point took him to another subject. In winning at FIU and then winning at home over Florida Atlantic, Marshall’s offense has run only 53 and 59 plays, respectively. The two Sunshine State opponents ran 85 and 90.
The Herd’s time of possession disadvantage in those two games was a combined 29:20, while the Herd has won by a combined 80-29 … after the Panthers and Owls had taken the first leads on MU this season.
Part of the reason for that is Johnson has burst for long TD runs, especially against FAU (58, 62 and 66). The drives on those three plays ran a combined 1:46 (six plays).
"I don’t think we necessarily need to run more plays," Van Horn said when asked if the offense needed to help out the Herd defense more. "But I do think more plays would come if we were able to have better control of the ball … (Johnson breaking long runs to score) That’s a major reason for what’s happened.
"But the main day-to-day, No. 1 thing we need to work on is ball control, and keeping control of the ball for an extended amount of time. Sometimes we get sloppy, sometimes sloppy too much, and especially in the first half, and it showed in our last two games, where we really put our defense in a tough spot.
"The first-half scores have shown that. And yet to really break down the actuality of certain things that happen in a game, you can’t keep a defense on the field as long as we do. If you’re scoring points, great, but if you aren’t scoring points, you aren’t getting anything out of it as an offense.
"Then, you’re really putting the defense in a tough spot, and it’s hard for it to continue to play hard tired for a whole half if your offense isn’t being productive."
Marshall has run on 57 percent of its plays in 2014. And while the Herd may need to go to the air more often as the season continues, there are two reasons that may not happen – worse weather, and the fact Holliday’s team has run it so well.
"I’m an offensive lineman, so I’m going to answer a little different," said Van Horn, when asked about the notion that the Herd needs to rely more on the pass. "I think whatever works -- whatever you beat people with -- you stick with it most of the time. And an offense’s identity is what works for it. The run game works for us, so we shouldn’t have to rely on the passing game. I’m not saying (quarterback Rakeem) Cato’s not going to make plays. He’s a great player, look at his history and look at this season and the way he leads this football team.
"But that doesn’t come from being in the game. It comes from preparation in practice, time spent preparing. Sometimes, it’s just not there. Another thing is you just can’t pick something up if the defense won’t give it to you. Because they have to give you one or the other, and you’ve got to take advantage of it.
"We have so many checks, it allows us to be balanced. If they take away the pass, if they drop seven or eight on defense, we can always hand it off."
Some of what the Herd has seen defensively in the first two-thirds of the season is due to Cato and his slicing and dicing of opposing defenses in 2012 and ’13. And while Van Horn and his line mates still are strong protectors – allowing only nine sacks this season and only five in the last seven outings – that’s not who they are anymore.
"We like guys on the ground," the tackle said.