Marshall football: Tulsa relies on robotic run game
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Tulsa running back Ja'Terian Douglas said Golden Hurricane Coach Bill Blankenship likes his running backs to all look the same when they take the field.
And when it comes to him and teammate Trey Watts, that's pretty easy to do.
Both are juniors. Both stand 5-foot-11, though Watts holds a one-pound weight advantage on Douglas, 190 to 189. Douglas has 374 yards on 51 carries this season, while Watts has 363 yards on 46 carries.
"I think that's what we've done well," Douglas said, "to just all look like robots out there."
Yet Blankenship embraces the differences in his runners, some minute and some significant. It's allowed the Golden Hurricane to stake its claim as Conference USA's top rushing offense and one of the best running teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
That's what Marshall (2-3, 1-0) must neutralize when Tulsa (4-1, 2-0) visits Joan C. Edwards Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network telecast).
Even with all the similarities, Blankenship said Douglas and Watts each have specific qualities that allow them to stand out.
"They're both a little better at some things," he said. "Watts is a little more of an all-around player - receiving, blocking, running. Ja'Terian is a little more of a complete speed threat. If he breaks, we call him the home-run hitter. He's probably not quite as effective in the passing game, but yet he's learning to do that and play very well there.
"They have some strengths, but, for the most part, they can run the entire offense."
Then there's Tulsa's 260-pound curveball, senior running back Alex Singleton.
Of Singleton, Blankenship said, "If he's wearing white pants, you can show a movie on it." Blankenship considers Singleton the Golden Hurricane's closer, gaining 242 yards on 58 carries and leading the team with eight rushing touchdowns.
Put it all together, and Tulsa is the best in C-USA and 12th in the FBS with 244.8 yards rushing per game. The Golden Hurricane also is 14th in the FBS and edging the Herd for the best scoring offense in the conference, averaging 42 points per game.
Rotating three running backs allows for fresher legs for longer periods of time, so Tulsa's runners can remain effective further into the season. It also vexes defenses, Watts said, because for as much as the backs may be alike, there's enough to force defenders to keep thinking.
"You can't just prepare for one thing," Watts said. "You can't just prepare for one guy that's always going to run outside and beat you with speed. You can't expect someone to always try and juke you, because Big Al is going to come in and run you over.
"I think it keeps people on their toes and keeps them off balance because people don't know what to expect. It's almost maybe as much of a mind game as it is physical-wise, just the fact they have to think about so many different things."
That dedication to the ground game comes in a conference known to air it out. Five C-USA teams are among the top 50 passing offenses this season, including three in the top 30. Tulsa may line up much like the other teams in the league, spreading defenses across the field. But it's the running backs that get the work.
"I think there's a trend to a lot more spread offense and most of the spread offense is maybe a little more of a finesse game," Blankenship said. "I think we've been able to hybrid-ize it a little bit. We have a spread presentation, but maybe have a little more emphasis in the run game."
And the running backs are having a blast with it, Douglas said.
"We have a lot of playmakers, just a lot of people who can contribute off each other and feed off each other," he said. "It's a lot of fun to watch."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.