Nov. 12, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – From whatever angle you look at it, Marshall’s rushing attack has been running to records.
The reasons? They are many and varied as to how Herd football has rolled past Southern Miss and UAB the last two weeks with a strong run game – and one of those is because Marshall’s offensive reputation last year and this has been rooted in the right arm of quarterback Rakeem Cato.
With a Thursday prime-time telecast Conference USA date at Tulsa (2-7, 1-4), Marshall (6-3, 4-1) needs to continue to be productive with the ball. It does seem like the attack has found its legs – so to speak – at the prime time of the season … November.
“I think it’s just the way defenses have played us,” said veteran center Chris Jasperse when asked to explain the Herd’s ground emergence. “The run game is there for us; (opponents) try to stop the passing game, so Cato checks into the run, and we’ve been getting hats on hats and just doing a great job and the running backs have been hitting the holes really well.
“We’re not doing anything different. We’re just trying to get better in our technique and just every day we stress on getting better and run blocking better. And (line coach Alex Mirabal) has been coaching us up and we’ve been taking it and trying to get better.”
Marshall set single-game school records in back-to-back games in yards per carry against Southern Miss (27 rushes, 304 yards, 11.3 average) and then UAB (32-381 for 11.9). Those obliterated the standard of 8.6 set in a 1997 win over Akron (27-for-232).
There’s more … That 11.9 per rush against the Blazers is a C-USA record (dating to the league’s 1996 creation), erasing the 11.5 that Louisville produced against Cincinnati on Nov. 27, 2004. The big day on the ground – an MU-record three backs eclipsed 100 yards – also fueled a conference single-game standard for average yards total offense.
Marshall’s 657 yards on 52 plays for 12.63 per play missed the school mark by .09 yards (versus VMI in 1991; 62-for-789), but the 12.63 erased the C-USA mark of 11.52, set by UAB against Florida Atlantic on Nov. 7, 2009.
The Herd’s total offense average of 12.6 against UAB is the best in the nation this season by more than 1.5 yards. The rushing yards per play of 11.906 against the Blazers also is tops, edging the 11.884 Auburn posted against Western Carolina.
“We all compete,” sophomore back Steward Butler said after the win over UAB. “We make one another better. And when you get your chance to get onto the field, it’s time to produce … We don’t really think about all the records and all that.
“We just go out there and have fun and if the records come, that’s good. If it happens, it happens.”
Senior starter Essray Taliaferro has three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Sophomore Kevin Grooms -- finally perhaps 100 percent after a long comeback from a high ankle sprain -- and Butler hardly play like backups.
The trio has combined for 642 yards in the last two games. They’ve produced six runs of 49 or more yards. What’s most impressive is they’ve only lost 8 yards in 46 carries combined in those two wins.
“You always look to see the backs of your running backs’ jerseys going downfield,” said MU right tackle Clint Van Horn. “I love to see it. Grooms being healthy again just adds to the positive spirit of the offense and the team. (Coach Doc Holliday) is really, really trusting him again.
“No one is going to catch him once he gets into the open field and when he gets past the second level, we know it’s a touchdown. It’s good we have all three guys because it takes a load – whatever that load is – off Butler and Taliaferro, but (Grooms) just adds another element to our offense and we’re happy to have him back 100 percent as we go down the stretch.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg, Mirabal, the line coach, and a couple of linemen pointed to the Herd’s ability to find a consistent group of “big ‘uns” to pave the way for the run game. Van Horn’s insertion at right tackle allowed senior Garrett Scott to slide to left tackle, and those two have flanked Jasperse and guards Alex Schooler and Sebastian Johansson in recent weeks.
Senior tackle Gage Niemeyer and true freshman guard/center Michael Selby are the top backups and have performed well, mostly in “short relief” lately.
“At the end of the day, having the same consistent people in there all the time helps,” Legg said. “Some years, when you think you’re going to have great chemistry, you lose a guy here, you lose a guy there, another over there and chemistry gets disrupted.
“We’ve been fortunate -- knock on wood -- that we’ve pretty much put the same six or seven offensive linemen out there. You can only play five at a time, but it’s been the same six or seven that have played the entire year, and that’s helped.”
For the season, Marshall is averaging 215.4 rushing yards per game. If the Herd can sustain that, it will be the program’s best average since its 1997 return to major college football from MU’s days as a Division I-AA power.
Marshall’s best I-A average per game was 196.3 in 2003, led by Earl Charles’ 1,039 yards and 729 from Butchie Wallace. The Herd hasn’t averaged higher than the current 215.4 since the final I-AA year, 1996, when Erik Thomas’ 1,296 yards and 1,238 from Doug Chapman paved the way to a 226.3 average.
Scott gives plenty of credit to Mirabal, the former FIU line coached hired by Holliday in the offseason.
“It’s a bunch of things, different techniques, looking at the defense, reading it, communication, that’s a big thing – five guys, one mind,” Scott said when asked about Mirabal’s teaching and its impact. “All of us communicating, all on the same page. We think, react, the same way.
“There’s so much stuff, I can’t just pick out one thing. They all coincide with one another and they all work. If you do one thing, it’s automatic to make you do the other thing.
“One big technique we use on the outside is whipping the knee on the defensive end, basically where you take your knee to his hip and you torque him out and you just drag feet. That’s one big technique … other than that, there are just so many things he’s just opened us up to.”
Mirabal said the run game’s emergence is rooted in “the tremendous job Coach (Thomas) Brown has done with those guys,” and three C’s – consistency, communication and Cato.
“I’m a firm believer of the continuity of the guys playing up front, getting the same pictures over and over,” Mirabal said. “When we go tempo, now they’re able to communicate without saying a word. It’s that and getting the techniques and the footwork down that we have changed. All of that is finally starting to become second nature. I think it’s just continuity and repetition.
“The communication … When I got here, a lot of them said, ‘Coach, we couldn’t call anything because we were going too fast.’ So, it was the excuse that the tempo prevented them from making the proper calls. And one of the things I did when I got here – and I told Doc and I told Coach Legg I was telling them this: ‘I’m going to coach you guys, and I’m going to teach you guys as if we’re breaking the huddle.’
“I think that’s important, and I think that’s why we’ve had success when we’ve had to slow down and had to go ‘four-minute’ at the end of games – which I knew was an issue last year, keeping the ball away from the opposing team. That’s why we’ve had success doing it, so I’ve coached them up as if we are a huddle team, so we can get our communication off and then I said, ‘We’ve just got to adapt our communication to a high tempo.
“You don’t want to be in that spot, but in our ‘coming outs’ this year (backs to the goal line), we’re almost 100 percent because of the fact that when we need to slow down, we can slow down and we can communicate those calls. And when we go tempo, we eliminate all excuses. We’re making proper calls. That’s been the majority of it.”
As for tempo, while the Herd has slowed at times from fast to what Legg calls “moderate”, Marshall still is getting a lot in a little bit of time. The time of possession per game is only 26:11, ranking in the bottom 10 in FBS in clock-usage.
Mirabal said another part of the equation is Cato’s ability and maturation. In the last two games, Mirabal said Cato has checked out of pass plays four or five times into rushes that have become scoring runs.
“Our running game is as much (No.) 12 (Cato) as it is the backs and the line,” Mirabal said. “If (the opponents are) putting eight guys in the box, he’s going to find someone open with the pass. If they’re dropping into coverage, he’s checking off and he’s giving it to the backs.”
Van Horn said it’s “no surprise” that most defenses the Herd has faced are playing the pass.
“That’s because Cato is really dangerous, and when you do start putting more guys in the box, Cato is going to make you pay for it, whether you think you can stop it or not,” Van Horn said. “And that’s just a tribute to Cato. He does a great job preparing with Coach Legg and the rest of those quarterbacks, and it works like a support system.
“I know a lot of people around Marshall know this, but I’m not sure the country knows he was a top-five passer in the nation last year, and the running game really takes some of that weight off Rakeem’s shoulders.
“He doesn’t have to be that guy we depend on for all of our offense. So, am I surprised they play pass mostly? No. But if they do play run, Cato’s going to dice ‘em up, and if they do play pass, then we can do both and we’ve shown that.”
The Herd has the Conference USA and school records to prove it.