Holliday and staff had Herd prepared
Let's call this win what it actually was.
It was the best performance by a Marshall football coaching staff in nine years.
Yes, nine years.
Looking for a reason for Marshall's surprisingly overwhelming 59-28 victory over East Carolina Friday before 25,177 fans at Edwards Stadium?
It was coaching.
Wanting to know how the Herd made the Pirates look so uncomfortable, so off-tempo, so out of kilter?
It was coaching.
Wondering how Marshall managed to win the East Division championship of Conference USA and advance to the league title game a week from today?
It was coaching.
And it started on the very first play of the game. East Carolina lined up on its own 24-yard line and when quarterback Shane Carden read Marshall's defense he got a very unpleasant surprise.
A 3-3-5 alignment.
Instead of Marshall's typical four-man front with two linebackers and five defensive backs, the Pirates were facing two ends, one tackle, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
"They weren't expecting that," said MU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater. "It's usually a third-down defense, but we had some run calls built into it. It seemed to make them a little uncomfortable at first."
So, uncomfortable East Carolina got shut out in the first quarter for the first time all season.
"We had to be the best defense today," said Heater. "That was our goal. We knew there were going to be two good offenses on the field, so we wanted to be the best defense."
That set the tone for the rest of the game.
East Carolina never got comfortable on either side of the ball.
After Marshall's defense scuttled the Pirates, the offense also threw some wrinkles at East Carolina.
On MU's first possession, quarterback Rakeem Cato made running plays resemble zone reads which froze East Carolina's defensive end and linebacker because they had to respect the option. But, actually, it was merely a well disguised dive.
Running back Essray Taliaferro parlayed that deception into bursts of 21 and 26 yards.
Then, there was a subtle maneuver with star slot receiver Tommy Shuler. Usually, he is lined up to the boundary (the short side of the field) with tight end/slot Gator Hoskins on the wide side.
But they switched for East Carolina.
"I was on the wide side," said Shuler, "and it gave me a lot more room to maneuver."
The result was nine catches for a season-high 147 yards.
Then, there was the red-zone running formation Marshall unveiled. It included tackles Clint Van Horn and Gage Niemeyer lined up side-by-side on the right side with Hoskins at one tight end and Eric Frohnapfel at the other.
Then, there was Blake "Big Cheese" Brooks -- all 6-foot-1, 302 pounds of him -- lined up at fullback in front of 6-1, 240-pound Devon Johnson at tailback.
It resulted in a pair of 2-yard touchdown runs by Johnson.
The name of the formation? What else? The "Whopper With Cheese."
What it all amounts to is the Herd threw wrinkles at East Carolina that the Pirates couldn't foresee or handle. And that's called coaching.
After some under-achieving performances and justifiable criticism this season, it was good to see.
MU's coaching staff won this game.
Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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