Dec. 31, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Alex Mirabal wasn’t having some sugar-plum Christmas week flight of whimsy during the Military Bowl.
There was a method to the Marshall offensive line coach’s seeming madness at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
And among the many ingredients that went into the Thundering Herd’s 31-20 statement victory over Maryland last Friday was one this veteran of 30 bowl pressboxes thought was seriously overlooked – the performance of the Herd’s suddenly jigsaw-puzzled offensive front.
On the opening play of the game, Maryland end Andre Monroe sacked Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato. It didn’t happen again, although the Herd (10-4) played much of the game in an empty set (no running back to block, with five receivers).
Mirabal’s mantra is “Five Men; One Mind.” In this bowl game, it was “Nine Guys, Cross Your Fingers.”
Season-long Herd watchers were stunned when – on the third offensive series for Coach Doc Holliday’s team – to the left and right, respectively, of center Chris Jasperse were guards Blake Brooks and Michael Selby.
By then, starting right tackle Clint Van Horn already was sidelined with a left biceps and shoulder strain.
He was in a sling. Turn out the Herd line wasn’t, although starting guards Alex Schooler and Sebastian “Swede” Johansson were playing hurt.
“Right at the start of bowl practice (at Edwards Stadium), Alex got a stinger and we held him out for four days,” Mirabal said. “Selby worked in practice and did a great job. So, we decided we’d play him in the game quite a bit.
“As for Blake coming in, Swede’s fingers were messed up. His right hand was already hurt, and then in pass rush drills in Day 2 bowl practices in Huntington, he caught his thumb on a facemask and jammed it. So, we held him out some and Blake played well in practice.
“Before the bowl, Swede had difficulty grabbing because of his hand, so that was an issue. In the game, his right hand, if you looked at it, it looked just like a Q-tip. He had foam rolled in his clenched fist and it was covered completely with tape. It looked like a club.”
Mirabal said the decision was made to play Brooks and Selby more extensively because the Herd staff felt the Terrapins’ defensive front “was really big and physical, and we needed more power in there, and Blake and Michael gave us that. They did a great job.”
So did senior Gage Niemeyer in his last game. The 6-foot-6, 297-pound Californian was called on to fill in for Van Horn at right tackle.
“Clint goes out on the third play of the game, and he already was hurt,” Mirabal said. “He missed the first five days of bowl practice because he popped a tendon in his plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Then he comes back, and all of a sudden a tendon in his bicep flares up, and then in the game his shoulder goes on him in the game.
“So, ol’ Gage is in at right tackle and then at left tackle, Garrett (Scott, with 35 career starts) gets a hip pointer and I’m thinking, ‘What next?’ We had Trevor Mendelson in there at left tackle for seven or eight plays before Garrett could get back out there.”
So, did the Herd offensive line measure up to Mirabal’s always-candid assessment of performance?
“The reason I say ‘yes’ is if you don’t notice the offensive line, it did a great job,” the Herd’s first-year line coach said. “I’m telling you, Gage went in there and did a great job. And I say that because the kid he went against, No. 41, (Terps hybrid rush end/outside linebacker Marcus) Whitfield, I think is going to be in the NFL Draft. He’s darn good.
“Gage did a phenomenal job on him. No sacks. Mendelson was in there; you didn’t notice, and he hadn’t played much (only 29 snaps in five games). And the great thing was that even though we had different guys in there, Bill (Legg, offensive coordinator) didn’t change a thing in what he was calling with the offense.
“Empty backfield … We’d probably done that maybe five or six snaps all year. We went to it probably half of the bowl game. We weren’t going to be conservative, because that was a good defense we were facing.
“We didn’t run the ball great. We ran it good enough. But they knew we were throwing it; we knew we were throwing it. For our guys up front it was ‘Next Man Up,’” like Doc days.
“Whatever the issue, if someone is out, hey, they’re not going to cancel the game, guys. They’re not going to call off the Military Bowl. So, let’s go to work.”
Niemeyer was the starter at left tackle in the first six games of the season, before Mirabal inserted Van Horn on the right side and moved Scott to left tackle. In the four Herd games leading up to the Military Bowl (Tulsa, FIU, East Carolina, Rice), Niemeyer had played only 10 snaps.
“It was poetic justice, Gage playing his last game, and playing it like he did,” Mirabal said. “For a kid like him to finish his career that way, with a terrific performance, is just special. It was awesome for him.
“When he got beat out and didn’t start anymore, he didn’t pout. He didn’t quit. He just kept working hard. He was always ready when we needed him. He was great. He took a real professional attitude.
“It’s guys like him – Doc has talked about the seniors a lot, and rightfully so – who helped us get to where we were this season.”
Mirabal challenged his linemen in pre-bowl meetings and practices with his usual brutally tough analysis.
“I told them that other than Virginia Tech, this was going to be the next best defensive front we’ve faced,” Mirabal said. “I told them that their defensive front is better than we are. And I said that was OK. We didn’t have to have perfect execution, but we needed perfect effort.
“The difference, I thought, was we outworked (the Terps’ defense) and out-efforted them. That’s what made the difference.”
Mirabal admitted he was worried at the start of the game, because he knew both starting guards and Van Horn were in the kind of tenuous health you might expect for linemen who had played more than 800 snaps over of 13 games.
“We give up the sack on the first play and I’m thinking, ‘Holy smokes!’” Mirabal said. “Then Clint goes down and you don’t want to know what I’m thinking. Well, we settled down. We started executing what we’d worked on for two weeks.
“And so much credit goes to Jasperse. What’s huge is Chris is like a glue, like a coach out there. And he gets stuff cleaned up and corrects things before they get over to me on the sideline. I can’t tell you how important that is. And he’s a calming influence to Cato.
“It’s big, what he means to our other guys and what he means to Cato. They’ve worked together for three years. There’s no way I’m going to split that up for next season.”
There had been some talk in the Herd camp about moving Jasperse to a guard in 2014 and playing Selby at center. Mirabal said that won’t happen. Cato and Jasperse will go out as a center-QB team.
Mirabal said when spring practice begins in late March, he’ll have Jasperse at center, with Brooks and Selby as the “ones” at the same guard spots they played in the bowl. Van Horn will stay at right tackle, with Johansson moving from left guard to left tackle to fill Scott’s vacancy.
“Cam Dees (redshirted in 2013 as he recovered from injury and then was held out) is healthy and will be our top backup interior guy,” Mirabal said. “At the backup left tackle, Mendelson is there, with Tom Collins. The backup right tackle, we could have a battle between (redshirted freshman) Sandley Jean-Felix and Eric Ansley, if Eric continues to develop as he did in the bowl practices.
“Tyler Combs is another backup interior guy. Cody Collins needs to keep getting bigger and stronger. Chris Huhn is an unknown, because he just hasn’t been out there much (after surgery).”
That’s then. What’s now is a Happy New Year for Mirabal.
“It’s been a great holiday,” he said. “Our guys stepped up and played well. They fought their rear ends off, and we won a big game for Marshall football.”