Marshall putting up big numbers
HUNTINGTON — Marshall University quarterback Rakeem Cato has said several times this season that statistics don’t matter.
And, he’s right.
If statistics mattered, the Thundering Herd football team would be blowing away Conference USA right now. Instead, the team is 2-4 and enters a bye week reeling after consecutive losses in games where they heavily outgained the opponent.
Marshall is listed fifth in FBS at 558.3 total yards per game and leads the nation in plays from scrimmage (552) and plays of more than 10 yards (129).
Following is a look at the offense through six games.
n STRENGTHS: Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg and co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen revamped the offense to gear it more to Cato’s strengths, and the move has paid dividends.
Cato looks extremely comfortable distributing the ball in the high-tempo offensive scheme and, for the most part, he has made good decisions and good reads in leading the offense to 40.5 points per game.
“We are where we want to be offensively,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said last week prior to the Tulsa game. “The only thing we have to do is take care of the football and if we continue to do that we can get better in other areas. The tempo creates issues for a lot of defenses.”
When opposing coaches speak about Cato, the word that comes up is “poise” which is his biggest growth as a quarterback from the 2011 season.
Cato leads the nation in completions (211) and passing yards (2,311) while throwing for 18 touchdowns through six games.
The talent around him has also made a smooth transition to the new offense.
Marshall features the two leading receivers in C-USA in Tommy Shuler (58 receptions, 562 yards) and Aaron Dobson (42 receptions, 483 yards) while fellow receiver Antavious Wilson ranks fifth in receptions with 32 and fifth in receiving yards with 390.
While the Herd was one-dimensional early in the season, C-USA play has seen the Herd do quite well in the rushing attack.
In conference action, Marshall is averaging 251.5 yards per game on the ground while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Against Rice, the Herd rushed for 334 yards on 50 carries and they backed that up with 169 yards on 45 carries against Tulsa, who came in with the league’s top defense.
Steward Butler and Kevin Grooms have been able to find gaps and help balance an offense that was seemingly one-dimensional when the season started.
As the Herd goes into the bulk of conference play, expect the balance to remain and Grooms and Butler to be chunking off yardage as teams attempt to take away Shuler and Dobson.
n WEAKNESSES: While Marshall’s offense has seen success scoring this season, there are two elements that winning football teams cannot have.
Slow starts and slow finishes.
The Herd has seen both, and that has added up to a 2-4 record.
Marshall has scored just 41 points in the first quarter of its six contests, meaning the high-powered offense is not jumping out on top of the opponents.
Despite receiving the football first in all six contests, the Herd has scored a total of 10 points on those opening drives when they could have seized early momentum.
The last time Marshall scored on an opening drive was in week three against Ohio when the Herd marched for a touchdown to take an early 7-0 lead. Since that time, the team has punted twice and fumbled its opening drive to Tulsa last week.
Slow starts are hard to overcome for any offense, but finishing slow is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Out of six games this season, Marshall has outscored just one opponent in the fourth quarter — that being Purdue after Marshall trailed by 28 at halftime.
Against Ohio and Tulsa, Marshall had chances to either tie or win the game on its home turf and in both games the final two drives ended with zero points in one-possession games.
“This is all about winning football games,” Holliday said following Saturday’s loss to Tulsa. “Here at Marshall, we expect to win those games.”
Even in one of Marshall’s wins it became a problem.
Against Rice, Marshall needed just one first down to end the contest after a Rice touchdown cut the lead to three, but the Herd was unable to get it and the Owls forced overtime and nearly won.
Marshall has put up great numbers, but with games on the line the offense has faltered and it has to be addressed for the Herd to win four of the last six and become bowl eligible.
“When your number is called, you have to make a play,” Holliday said.
n KEY PLAYER GOING FORWARD: Aaron Dobson
Dobson is Marshall’s deep threat and, more importantly, he has been the guy who the Herd has gone to when they needed a play in recent years.
Against East Carolina last season with “The Catch” and on fourth-down late in the bowl win over Florida International, Dobson’s number was called and he found a way to make the play by hooking up with Cato.
This season, the deep ball has not been there and neither have the touchdowns.
After only having one first-half catch Saturday in the Tulsa game, Dobson and Cato connected on nine passes in the second half, which is a great stride in the right direction.
However, with the Herd trailing by seven and facing a fourth down Saturday, a fade route to Dobson fell incomplete.
It might be a bit nit-picky, but when a player is projected to be a first-round or second round NFL Draft pick those are the game-changing plays that must be made and that is how they are measured.
When a team’s deep threat has 42 catches, but only two touchdowns, it usually means there is a timing issue on deep patterns.
Dobson and Cato need to build on the momentum of the second half against Tulsa and continue to work on the deep ball during the bye week to give the offense that added dimension in the second half of the season.