Marshall football: Herd offensive balance is critical
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The Marshall football team's offense was a one-trick pony for much of the 2012 season, but what a trick it was.
The Thundering Herd threw 607 passes last season, the most in Conference USA and behind only Mike Leach's pass-always Washington State team for the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That put Marshall and quarterback Rakeem Cato at the top of the FBS passing charts, but it didn't put them in the postseason.
Marshall's passing numbers through its first two games are solid, but nowhere near where they were a season ago. That doesn't bother the Herd at all. The overall yards and points are still among the nation's best, but it's a more balanced attack, one Marshall wants to continue this Saturday at Ohio University (8 p.m., ESPNews).
"I've said since day one that we may not have as good of stats, but we are a better offense," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "We had a lot of stats last year, but now we're a more balanced team. We're a better offense than last year because of being able to run the ball when we need to and still have the ability to throw it really well."
Marshall ran the ball 480 times last year, when many teams try to keep the ratio closer to a 50-50 split or spend more time running than passing. A number of last year's plays were run-pass options, Cato said, and it was up to him to either put the ball in the running backs' hands or pull it back and throw. Last year, he said, opposing defenses, at least at the beginning, based their evaluations of him on his so-so freshman season. That became their mistake.
Now they see he can put up conference MVP numbers and Cato sees more defensive formations where the run is the better play. Against Miami (Ohio) and Gardner-Webb, the Herd has run the ball 97 times and thrown 72 times. Cato said there are great benefits to keeping an opposing defense guessing.
"It's a great thing know I can throw for 200 yards, the running backs can run for 300 yards and we're just doing everything together as one whole offense," he said. "We just have to capitalize on whatever they're doing to us."
Marshall's passing numbers have dipped so far, from an FBS-leading 365.1 yards per game last year to 286.0 yards this year, ranking 36th.
But the rushing numbers have jumped from 169.2 yards per game last year (54th in the FBS) to 264.0 yards per game (25th in the FBS). The Herd is averaging 550 yards of total offense in 2013, 17th best in the FBS, yet above its 534.3-yard average last year. It's also averaging 53.5 points per game, ninth best in the FBS and above its 40.9-point average from 2012.
The Herd's 52-14 win over Miami and 55-0 win over Gardner-Webb were its first back-to-back 50-point performances since returning to major college football in 1997 and the first time overall since 1996, when Marshall beat Delaware, 59-14, and Furman, 54-0, in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
The balance in offense has come, in part, from a greater balance in who is running the ball and blocking for those runners.
Marshall has used all four of its running backs in its first two games, led by Steward Butler and his 258 yards on just 26 carries. He gouged Gardner-Webb for 151 yards and three touchdowns on just nine carries. Against the Runnin' Bulldogs, no running back carried more than 12 times or fewer than seven.
"It's a joy to be in a system like this," senior running back Essray Taliaferro said, "where you see receivers succeed, running backs, quarterbacks, tight ends, everybody doing well. It poses challenges for watching us on film. It's competition. By us being so deep at the running back position, we all felt we had to take our game to another level and gain coaches' trust."
A deeper offensive line also helps the entire offense's cause. In each of the first two games, eight linemen have played at least 36 snaps. Fresher bodies make for healthier, more spirited players. And while they're doing more blocking for the run rather than the pass this year, the linemen don't mind.
"We kind of like them both," senior offensive tackle Gage Niemeyer said. "Pass blocking and run blocking are sort of the same thing. You have to have good technique and you have to be physical. Just being able to do both equally feels good because you know you don't have to rely on one thing and you know the defense is always on its heels."
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THE ACC announced Monday that kickoff for Marshall's Sept. 21 game at Virginia Tech will be at noon. It will be broadcast on one of three networks - ESPNU, ESPNews or ESPN3. That decision will be made by Sept. 15.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.