BOGACZYK: Herd Offense Takes More than Confidence to WKU
The Word on the Herd-Nov. 20, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- After spending much of the season trying to keep its underpinnings on the field, Marshall's offense has built more than confidence through its recent play.
For the Herd, it couldn't come at a better time. After an open date Saturday, Marshall (9-2, 6-1) heads to Western Kentucky next Friday for a showdown for the Conference USA East Division title.
A year ago, thanks WKU's stunning start -- 42 points in less than 20 minutes at Edwards Stadium -- and four Herd turnovers, the Hilltoppers curbed the Herd's unbeaten season and College Football Playoff access bowl dreams with a 67-66 overtime victory.
This time, Marshall has enough confidence in its defense that it won't have to try and outscore WKU again. But should that happen, at least Coach Doc Holliday's team feels strong enough about an improved offense slowed by repeated injuries to multiple key pieces earlier in the season.
In the Herd's 52-0 rout of FIU last Saturday -- the Panthers entertain WKU (8-2, 6-0) on Saturday -- Holliday saw increased offensive promise on more than the scoreboard.
"(The FIU game) was important because all of those young running backs are getting better, too," Holliday said. "With (Tony) Pittman back, this will be the first time in a while that we have four healthy running backs.
"Our offensive line came out of the game intact. (Guard Nate) Devers went in there and played the best he's played all year because he's healthy now. Finally, we're getting most of our guys back. We're also going to have a couple of guys back (at WKU) who didn't play Saturday."
Among the Herd's offensive starters in a season-opening win over Purdue, four players have missed significant playing time -- including all-conference first team tackle Clint Van Horn and running back Devon Johnson. The latter has missed five games and had only eight carries in two other games combined.
Fellow backs Pittman (five games) and Remi Watson (three) have bene out. Devers missed six games due to injury and the death of his father. Michael Birdsong, the starting quarterback in the season's first two games, missed six games. Van Horn has played in only 10 quarters this season.
Holliday said there are two sides to that coin, because with so much juggling, younger players have emerged -- in particular true freshman quarterback Chase Litton, who is 8-1 as the Herd starter.
"I'm proud of the (young) players because that says a lot about them," Holliday said. "There are a lot of guys who have had to step up in important roles and they have. Our coaches have done a great job too. Coach (Alex) Mirabal has done a great job patch-working that offensive line together at times. We talked about the running backs.
"Defensive line was another position where we had some young guys step up last week. I looked out there a couple of times and we had an all-freshman defensive line. That bodes well for the future because they went in there and played well."
Despite all of the needed shuffling, offensive coordinator Bill Legg's unit has been solid in several ways. One is its ability to hang onto the football. Marshall's offense hasn't lost a fumble in its last 27-plus quarters and has lost only one fumble in its last 37 quarters since Johnson fumbled the ball away on the last play of the third quarter in a Sept. 12 loss at Ohio.
The Herd offensive line hasn't allowed a sack in its last three games, and has had its best two across-the-board performances in the last two games -- a triple-overtime loss at Middle Tennessee and the win over FIU.
Heading into this weekend, Litton ranks second nationally among freshmen QBs with 20 touchdowns. He has nine TDs and only one interception in his last four outings.
The 6-foot-6 rookie quarterback gives credit to his receivers and what's up front.
"They just all make plays," Litton said when asked how those offensive teammates have aided his progress. "I'll never forget, during the FIU game, I sat back in the pocket forever, I bounced back in there, bounced, and I found a box over the middle.
"And during the play, (center Michael) Selby turns around and says -- well, I can't tell you what he said exactly -- but he basically says, `I got you.' And just knowing that, the confidence he has, with the offensive line clicking, receivers clicking, we're a good offense when we get everyone going.
"Once we realize that we're very good, we will be very good."
Outside receiver Justin Hunt said the obvious key to the Herd offense's progress is the progress of Litton.
"It took time for us, having a different quarterback," Hunt said, "and every receiver wants the ball, so it just took time. So, as the games went on, Chase just got better and better, and in practice he got better and better.
"I feel like we're really clicking right now, and it's a good time of the season to be clicking. So, I think we'll carry it on through this bye week and into Western Kentucky, and if we can beat Western and play for the conference championship and win it, that would be great."
And while it's an open date Saturday for the Herd and Holliday didn't hold practices Monday and Tuesday and went with only a light Wednesday workout -- it hasn't been a bye week.
Marshall knows what's next ... and it's more than star WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty that will test the Herd.
"We've got great kids and great leadership on this team," the sixth-year Marshall coach said. "To be honest, I didn't want them around (the Shewey Building football facility Monday and Tuesday), but I look up and they're all around.
"You look at them and they're in the building watching tape, in on their own, but that's what great teams that have guys who like football do. You don't have to worry about them not being mentally sharp and not ready to play."
Asked whether a respite after games 11 straight weeks -- following August camp -- was good, Litton wasn't buying it.
"I love that (the commitment to football in an FBS program)," he said. "I love every day being football, love every day. It means you're constantly working, and it's a little different having (Monday and Tuesday) off. (Monday) really isn't an off day for us. It's get in the film room, focus on what we need to focus on and the mental aspect of the game.
"The physical part of the game, it's good to have those two days off, but they're not really off days for us because we know we have to come in there and get ready for this game.
"I had a lot of little mistakes -- two of them against FIU -- that I wish I could take back and we know we can't have any against WKU with the team they are, the powerhouse they are now. We just have to focus on us and get better and focus on WKU.'
An impressive Senior Day blanking of FIU in bounce-back fashion from the tough loss at Middle pointed Marshall toward its goal ... and the route runs through Western Kentucky.
"Coach Legg asked me -- actually after the spring game -- what my expectations were for the season," Litton said when asked whether he's reached his own expectations after become the starting QB. "And I told him it's just to win a conference championship, so we haven't done that yet.
"So, no, I haven't reached that goal yet, so we've got to focus on WKU."