Marshall's Steward Butler (20), shown carrying the ball against East Carolina Saturday, ran for 166 yards in the Herd's 54-51 overtime win at East Carolina in 2012.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Chris Jasperse remembers one of the most taxing days of his college football career.The center and his Marshall team were taking on Rice, and some television decision maker thought it was a good idea to play a 2:30 p.m. game on a September Saturday in Houston.That's the wrong end of Texas for "dry heat." The theme at the mostly empty Rice Stadium centered on the three H's - hazy, hot, humid."The thing I remember most about that game is it was 112 [degrees] on the turf," said Jasperse, Marshall's center. "It was very hot and I think we played over 110 plays, so it was a long day for us up front. That's the thing I remember the most."That, and the Thundering Herd seemingly had to score on nearly every possession to keep up. It scored on six of 11 drives in regulation plus both in overtime to win 54-51.It was the first time with Rakeem Cato at starting quarterback the Herd scored more than 40 points in regulation on an FBS defense, not to mention the 54 total.And those drives featured the first hint the Herd could run the ball. Two weeks earlier, Cato threw 65 passes against Ohio, pretty much by necessity. The 22 running plays in that game netted only 59 yards.In the shootout against the Owls, Steward Butler erupted for 166 rushing yards and Kevin Grooms added 103. Remi Watson nearly made it a 100-yard threesome, rushing for 84 yards. As a team, the Herd totaled 334 rushing yards despite Cato getting thrown for 19 yards in losses.
"We put in some different things, and I think that was week four [it was]," Jasperse said. "We put in a couple of plays, and it opened up our run game a lot. Our backs did a good job with it, and we just went from there; our outside zone made it from there."In its 5-7 campaign, Marshall ran for 169.2 yards per game, well ahead of the 120.1 of 2011 and 97.2 of 2010. Entering Saturday's Conference USA championship game at Rice Stadium, the average has grown to 219.9, 232.8 in eight conference contests.That Marshall rushing game nearly pulled off a double-century last week against East Carolina as the Herd won the East Division and the right to play for the C-USA title. Essray Taliaferro ran for a career-high 161 and Butler added 90.Those two will be on display at noon Saturday at Rice Stadium, with ESPN2 on the call.
Marshall's run-vs.-pass numbers this fall have taken a slight tilt toward the ground, with 499 rushing attempts compared to 437 passes. The play calls are closer to 50-50 when you consider 22 sacks and the 83 rushing attempts by Cato."We've been wanting, since I took this job, to be a balanced offense," said MU coach Doc Holliday said. "We've been able to do that this year, and we're a better offense than we were a year ago because we've been balanced, we've been able to run it as well as throw it."At Rice, coach David Bailiff painfully remembers that game, but thinks Cato and the Herd offense is even better this year.
During Monday's championship game teleconference, Bailiff and Holliday exchanged greetings as Holliday's segment was finishing, and Bailiff expressed his admiration for Cato."I tell you, I put that film on, Doc, holy smokes! How much your quarterback's developed," Bailiff said. "Wow, is he playing well."Later in the teleconference, the seventh-year coach talked about the Herd's balance. He noted the 600-total-yard games, but had to see the film to discover what is making the MU attack click."When you hear about these great numbers, I assumed they were just throwing the ball everywhere," Bailiff said. "You start studying them and breaking them down, their running game is very effective. So they're balanced, a lot more offensively balanced this year."The Owls are ranked second in C-USA in full-season total defense (351.5 yards per game), third in league games (329.4). Rush defense is ranked toward the middle of the pack, but the Owls are third in pass defensive efficiency rating and have the best third-down defense (29.6 percent against league foes).Jasperse singled out two particular Owls he'll have to block, tackles Ross Winship and Christian Covington. Covington, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound sophomore, has solid numbers for a tackle - 48 tackles, a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, a fumble forced and a fumble recovery.
Linebacker Michael Kutzler leads the Owls with 79 tackles, with "Kat" defender Paul Porras just behind with 70. Cornerbacks Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan have combined for seven interceptions and 14 pass breakups."Phillip Gaines, No. 15, is as good as there is in America," Holliday said.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.