HUNTINGTON — Generally, third-and-10 is no way for an offense to live, but quarterback Chase Litton and his Marshall offense are doing better than average when faced with those long odds.
The Thundering Herd is Conference USA’s best third-down team in all situations, converting 45.7 percent through seven contests. Nationally, the Herd is tied for 23rd with Clemson. The script for success on third down involves gaining positive yardage on the first two. You will be hard-pressed to find a coach who doesn’t list 4 yards on first down as a minimum goal.
It doesn’t always work out that way. A tackle for loss here, an incompletion there and you’re in third and long.
Officially, Marshall has had 105 third-down attempts. In a tabulation of play-by-play sheets, the Herd has faced third-and-8 or longer 44 times. Nineteen times those have turned into first downs and/or touchdowns — a 43.2 percent success rate. That number would be fourth in C-USA.
That’s why Marshall is one of the league leaders in time of possession (31:53 overall, 33:39 league games, the latter ranking first). That leads to a confident offense, a fresh defense and a winning ledger.
The Herd (6-1 overall, 3-0 C-USA) aims to build on its success at 2:30 p.m. Saturday when it welcomes Florida International into Joan C. Edwards Stadium. The game will stream live on Stadium, via Facebook.
Litton jokes about slipping into third-and-long, but the Herd has come up big on several of those plays. He personally scored on a 14-yard run on third and 12 against Kent State. Against Old Dominion, Tyler King scored on a 30-yard run on third-and-10.
“We love to put ourselves in tough situations on third and long,” Litton half-joked. “They sat me down in the offseason and told me how [Rakeem] Cato used to love these moments. He used to dare to put them in third and long.”
Oh, yes. Cato demoralized a few defenses by converting long third downs on improvised pass plays, scrambling for the first-down stake or simply checking into a run which torched a “drop eight” defense.
“I’ve kind of tried to take that approach — no matter what it is, keep our offense on the field,” Litton said. “I haven’t been amazing at it this year, but I’m doing what I can.”
More than you might think, actually. He is 16 of 25 for 302 yards on third down, with no touchdowns but also no interceptions. That computes to a 165.47 NCAA passer rating, 30 points better than his overall rating of 135.16. The Herd has gained 15 first downs on passing plays, including four first downs gained on fouls committed against MU receivers (holding, pass interference).
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg would as soon his offense get into fewer such situations — the Herd had only four third-and-8-plus downs against both Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee, and the scoreboard seemed to reflect it.
“Don’t like to be in that, but we’ve seemed to have dealt with it better as the season has gone along,” Legg said. “We’ve kind of hung our hat on a few things put our kids in the best position, and they’ve executed well in those scenarios.
“We haven’t been stupid, either. Chase has done a great job with his eyes and a great job taking care of the ball. When we’ve gotten some ‘drop-eight’ situations, we’ve put ourselves in a position to run a play that’s best against that instead of forcing something else in there.”
Marshall has run on third down, maybe too much for a second-guesser’s liking. But whether the play call came from Legg or from Litton’s discretion at the line, the Herd owns first-down runs of 14, 30 and 17 yards on third-and-long situations.
Those aren’t necessarily improvised.
“A lot of the thing is, you set up plays,” Litton said. “I’m not going to sit here trying to give anything away, but Coach Legg’s created that. Cincinnati game, we ran inside-zone split, inside-zone split, inside-zone split, and finally, we play-action and hit [Ryan] Yurachek for a touchdown.
“He does a tremendous job of that, giving us different formations … hats off to him, hats off to our offensive line for giving us time to do it.”