Dec. 2, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – There are big things in life … like, say, the jumbo “Cheese” package that Marshall’s football team unveiled in its oh-so-big last game.
But even bigger than that whopper of an offensive set for the Thundering Herd is the next game, a Conference USA Championship date at Rice, a matchup of 9-3 teams Saturday at noon.
After a C-USA East Division-clinching 59-28 romp past a nine-win East Carolina club – a game coach Doc Holliday called “the biggest game (at Edwards Stadium) in 11 years” – the Herd has its sights focused on a bigger prize.
Really, many among the Herd don’t know the championship feeling that Holliday experienced during his earlier coaching years at Florida, where the Gators won Southeastern Conference and BCS titles.
“Getting to the championship game is just half of it,” Marshall senior left tackle Garrett Scott said Monday. “We want to go down there and win the game, just like they’re trying to win it. This is the biggest game I’ve played in my life.
“Other than a few guys on our team … Coach asked the other night, ‘How many of you played for a high school championship?’ Only a few guys raised their hands. I looked around and most of us were the same, no hands up.”
Scott, from Douglas, Ga., said the closest he’s come to a title was a semifinal loss by Coffee County in the Georgia high school 5A playoff semifinals – one win from a championship game in the Georgia Dome. That team was also the other time he’s been on a nine-win team.
“This game, this championship game, is the biggest game most everybody on our team has ever played,” said the 6-foot-5, 294-pound Scott. “We’re ready. We’re excited. We wanted to get here and we have.
“Now, we have to do something with the opportunity we’ve made for ourselves. We’re excited to be here, but we’re not going to let that get to us. We want to stay focused and bring back this championship.”
At Rice Stadium in its first C-USA title game in nine years in the league, the Herd will be seeking a sixth straight win for the first time since the 2001 team won 10 straight after an opening loss at top-ranked Florida and went on to finish 11-2 with a double-overtime GMAC Bowl comeback victory over ECU.
The lopsided win over the Pirates last Friday not only delivered a statement – Marshall got national poll votes for the first time since finishing No. 24 in the final 2002 poll – but it also included the introduction of that aforementioned “Cheese” package.
Scott said the Herd coaching staff’s willingness and desire to introduce different wrinkles – like the defense’s “Radar” set with one down lineman earlier this season – helps keep things lively as well as successful.
The “Cheese” is named for backup offensive guard Blake “Cheese” Brooks, a 302-pounder who plays fullback in the set. Marshall unveiled it against ECU and used it on a couple of occasions, including Devon Johnson’s early touchdown run – as a 247-pound tailback.
“When we first put it in a while back in practice, when Coach told us we were going to do that, we were all like, ‘Cheese, aw, man,’” Scott said, laughing. “We had it in the playbook, just never ran it until the last game.
“And when we put it in, we were all smiling, looking at Cheese, and he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m going to hit somebody, mess ‘em up.’ So, when we got ready to run it in practice, he was so excited he tripped over somebody, and we’re just laughing.”
Left to right in a seven-man front, “Cheese” is tight end Eric Frohnapfel, Scott, guards Sebastian Johansson and Alex Schooler flanking center Chris Jasperse, and side-by-side right tackles Clint Van Horn and Gage Niemeyer. At the right end, set tackle-tight but off the line of scrimmage, is tight end Gator Hoskins.
Brooks and Johnson are in the backfield with quarterback Rakeem Cato.
Yes, it’s a weighty subject. Those 11 are just about a combined ton-and-a-half – or 2,962 pounds, 269.2 per man – and that includes the 188-pound Cato. The 10 “big ‘uns” average 277.4.
“It was good to see all those big boys out there together,” Scott said, when asked if Brooks might ever be handed the ball – rekindling thoughts of “Refrigerator” Perry of the great Chicago Bears’ teams under coach Mike Ditka. “Hey, it might be a possibility out there. We’ve got a bunch of ways we can run it, but we only chose one. There are a lot of things we can do out of that.”
The Herd may roll out “Cheese” again against the Owls in the title game. Last season in a 54-51 double-overtime win at Rice Stadium, Marshall rushed for 334 yards, Marshall’s most in a road game since getting the school-record for an away game – 336 at Morehead State in 1983.
I’ll say it’s knowing we can possibly run the ball,” Scott said when asked what the Herd learned in the win last season that might be valuable this time around. “But we’re not looking at the team or game from last year, because they’re a better team and we’re obviously a better team.
“So, we’re just going to go out there and execute how we’ve been executing for the last few games.”
The Herd is seeking its first double-digit year in the win column since the 2002 team went 11-2. Scott said the lopsided triumph over East Carolina (9-3) in the teams’ last meeting as C-USA foes was a statement game for the program.
“We had a complete team effort, against a very good team,” Scott said. “We executed on special teams, we were our best on defense and offense. It showed we can be a complete team and when we have all of our parts rolling together, you can’t stop us.”
Marshall has a school-record five straight 500-yard total offense games, too, and has averaged 601.8 yards in those games – and with balance. The Herd has 1,385 ground yards and 1,624 through the air in a 5-0 November.
The other four teams that averaged 550-plus-yards for the month (Fresno State, Ohio State, Northern Illinois and Cincinnati) had at least a 530-yard pass-run differential.
“I think a lot of it comes from the way we practice every week and the way the coaches expect a lot out of us,” Scott said. “It goes from the defense giving us on offense the ball in good field position. We just execute. It all goes back to practice. Like they say, you play like you practice.”
Now, it’s on to the biggest game of many in the Herd.
“It’s not over yet,” Scott said when asked about finishing his career on a team that has rekindled Marshall fortunes. “I’m excited to be at the point that we are. We put ourselves in the position to just take this, but it’s not over by far. I’m just excited about it.
“Back in high school, one game short of the Georgia Dome, it was tough losing, so I hate that feeling. I know a lot of other guys on our team made it there (to a title game) but didn’t win, and then we have a few guys who have that taste of winning.
“The guys who have won a championship tell us they know what that feeling is like. Coach tells us he knows what that feeling is like. It’s great, excellent. You want to experience that, too, so you’ve just got to prepare, prepare, prepare.”