The Marshall Preview
One thing that made Navy unique in the last round of conference shuffling was that they weren’t already members of another league. They were an independent. As such, they couldn’t swap one conference schedule for another; they had several individual contracts that had to be fulfilled. Navy announced that they were joining the Big East in 2012, but they didn’t play their first slate of league games until 2015 in order to play out their contractual obligations.
Since then, Navy’s scheduling routine has been to include one early game against an FCS opponent, although there have been some exceptions. There were a few longer-term contracts still on the books even after the Mids joined the American. In 2017, Navy had a non-conference meeting with Florida Atlantic. The following year, while the Mids faced Lehigh in week three, they opened the season at Hawaii and played 13 games. This year, the Mids will play the first of two games against Marshall, the last remaining contract from the independent era.
And so, like the coelacanth and the horseshoe crab, this week’s matchup against the Thundering Herd is a living fossil, an un-evolved, Mesozoic football scheduling specimen. The series was originally scheduled to be played in 2016 and 2018, and it probably would have been better for Navy if it stayed that way.
I admit that I’m a tad melodramatic here. I shouldn’t make Marshall out to be the Chicago Bears. It’s just that, if there was ever a season where Navy would benefit from a Patriot League tune-up game, it’s this one. The Mids are coming off of a rough 2020 where they went 3-7 and had their worst offensive showing since the return of the triple option in 2002. There were extenuating circumstances, of course, just as there were with many other programs in the pandemic season. Regardless, a team looking to re-establish the fundamentals after going a year without them would probably benefit from having a game where they could fine-tune things before hitting the meat of the season.
Instead, the Mids have ordered up a ribeye right off the bat. While Navy showed some of the worst on-field effects of the COVID pandemic, Marshall was one of the teams that handled it the best. The Thundering Herd won their first seven games of the abbreviated season, including a 17-7 victory over #23 Appalachian State in September. They clinched a spot in the Conference-USA championship game and were ranked as high as 15 in the AP Poll. The wheels fell off the wagon a little at the end as their offense disappeared; they were shut out by Rice, lost to UAB in the C-USA title game, then fell to Buffalo in the Camellia Bowl. It was a disappointing finish, but with Doc Holliday being named C-USA's Coach of the Year after winning a division championship, it's hard to think of the season as anything but a success. With a slew of players returning for 2021, the future looked even brighter.
Apparently, not everyone in Huntington felt that way. In one of the offseason's more surprising moves, Marshall opted not to renew Holliday's contract. Holliday had gone 85-54 in 11 seasons at Marshall, including three division titles, the 2014 C-USA championship, a 6-2 bowl record, and two conference COY awards. It's a record that any coach could be proud of, but it apparently wasn't enough. Perhaps the decision was a case of next-levelitis; the Herd went 13-1 in 2014 but hasn't approached that kind of success since. There was even speculation that the state's governor was pushing for a change since everyone likes a story about booster intrigue. Whatever the reason for Holliday's dismissal, it created one of the more compelling job openings of the offseason. After a short search, that opening was filled by Alabama assistant Charles Huff.
Huff has had an interesting football career. As a player, he was a walk-on fullback at Hampton before being converted to an offensive lineman, serving as the team's starting center and captain by his senior year. As a coach, he's been one of the most sought-after assistants in the game. Huff was the running backs coach to the stars. After a year as an assistant with the Buffalo Bills, he was on PJ Fleck's staff at Western Michigan before spending four years with James Franklin at Penn State (he had previously spent a year with Franklin at Vanderbilt). He followed Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State before being hired by Nick Saban at Alabama. Along the way, he developed a reputation for being one of college football's best recruiters. Now, at 37, he's one of the game's youngest head coaches. If Marshall didn't hire Huff, it probably wouldn't have been long before someone else did.
Given Huff's pedigree and reputation, Marshall fans have every reason to be excited about the future. Given the players they have returning this year, that future might be nearer than people think. It's rare for a new coach to inherit a program in such good shape when his predecessor was let go. New coaches are usually hired to fix struggling teams, not teams that just played for a conference championship. The media picked the Herd to repeat as C-USA East champions in its preseason poll. Navy might be facing a team with a new coaching staff, but it's a team that has every expectation of hitting the ground running.
Or passing, I should say. One of the reasons for the optimism about Marshall's season is the return of quarterback Grant Wells. Wells is listed as a redshirt freshman, although that's because nobody lost a year of eligibility in 2020. In any other year, he'd be considered a redshirt sophomore. His 2020 season was one of the finest of any freshman in the country.
After winning the job in the wake of Isaiah Green's transfer, Wells made the most of his opportunity, starting all ten games. Because Marshall had a very good running attack-- they averaged nearly 40 carries and 178 yards per game last year-- they could bring Wells along slowly. He didn't throw more than 25 passes until the Herd's fifth game. He was given more responsibility as the season progressed, culminating with a 336-yard, five-touchdown performance against Middle Tennessee State. When it was all said and done, he had thrown for 2,091 yards and 18 touchdowns (to ten different receivers) and was named first-team all-conference.
It wasn't all smooth sailing, though. Things went downhill in a hurry after the MTSU win. In his next game, Wells threw five interceptions against Rice. He followed that by completing only eight passes against UAB in the conference title game. Against Buffalo in the Camellia Bowl, he threw for only 114 yards. What changed? It's possible that the Rice game gave defenses more of a blueprint or stopping the Herd. It's also possible that COVID threw the offense off rhythm; there were three weeks between the MTSU and Rice games due to cancelations. Maybe it was something else. Whatever it was, it's vital for Marshall to correct the issue because they are planning on hitching even more of their offense to Wells' right arm.
Holliday and his staff helped take some pressure off their young quarterback by slowing down the pace of play. In 2020, Marshall averaged only 66.9 plays per game, which was 107th in the country. Huff intends to play at a much faster tempo this year. Given the change of philosophy, it might seem odd for Huff to have retained the offensive coordinator from the previous staff, Tim Cramsey. It makes more sense when you consider that Huff intends to win right away. The next few years of Wells’ development will go a long way toward determining Marshall’s success, and forcing his quarterback to learn new terminology with a new coach would only slow things down. Continuity is the priority.
When Huff was introduced in January, he said that he hoped for Marshall's offense to look similar to what he did at Alabama. In particular, he talked about a mix of RPO and drop-back passing elements. I'm a little bit skeptical. Not that Marshall won't do those things; I'm sure they will. I just don't think they'll come anywhere close to Alabama's production. That's not a knock on Marshall, either. Who else could? The players lining up for the Crimson Tide have a lot to do with how good their scheme looks, and it will be difficult for the Herd to replicate that look even relative to their C-USA schedule. Most teams have strengths and weaknesses; Alabama just has varying degrees of strength. There isn't much that one could ask of Alabama's players that they couldn't do.
One element of Huff's vision that might be difficult for Marshall to realize is stretching the field. The Herd didn't exactly set the world on fire last year in pass plays of ten yards or more; their average of 8.2 per game was 87th in the country. By comparison, Memphis-- who Navy held to 280 total yards-- was 13th, with 12.27 per game. Marshall has several receivers coming back this year, but the one with the biggest deep-threat potential, Broc Thompson, transferred to Purdue. They still have reliable targets who can move the chains, though. Corey Gammage is a 6'4" wide receiver who led the team last year with 409 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Xavier Gaines wasn't far behind; his 404 yards and four TDs earned him first-team all-conference honors. He can be a bit of a matchup problem for defenses, giving Marshall the ability to line up with four credible receivers split wide, even with 3-WR personnel.
If Marshall is going to stretch the field this year, they will need to give those receivers time to get downfield. That didn't seem like it would be much of a problem at first, considering that last year's offensive line gave up only 1.2 sacks per game. This season's group had four starters returning, including All-American guard Cain Madden, and had just added UNC transfer Billy Ross. Things are a bit more unsettled after Madden transferred to Notre Dame and Ross decided to retire from football. The left side of the line is still in excellent shape, with a trio of big, physical seniors leading the way. The right side has a few more questions. Logan Osburn, a former walk-on and redshirt "super" freshman, will start at right guard. Outside of him will be 6'7" tackle Kendrick Sartor, a "super" junior who saw action in six games last year. The question for the line is less about individual talent and more about how well they will operate as a group after the recent changes. A line that isn't used to working together can accidentally turn defenders loose in the pass rush, especially against a zone-blitzing team like Navy.
While Marshall's offense is looking to step up to the next level, their defense is already there. Eight starters return from a unit that ranked #1 in scoring defense, #2 in total defense, and #4 against the run in 2020.
The defensive coordinator fortunate enough to inherit this bounty is former McNeese State head coach Lance Guidry, who spent last year on the staff at Florida Atlantic. Guidry has held multiple coordinator jobs in his career, with the last at Southeastern Louisiana in 2019. At FAU, he was reunited with Willie Taggart, who had hired him to be his defensive coordinator at Western Kentucky in 2011. Guidry and the Hilltoppers faced the Navy offense that season, falling to the Mids, 40-14.
Guidry uses the nickel as his base defense, but he went with a different look against Navy as many coaches do. He alternated between a five-man front and a six-man front while leaving four defensive backs in deep coverage. The safeties would follow the tail motion of the Navy slotbacks. You can sort of get a sense of what he was trying to do; overwhelm Navy at the line of scrimmage, but leave the DBs far enough back to keep from having the ball thrown over their heads in play action. By attempting to have his cake and eat it too, though, Guidry's defense accomplished neither.
As most readers of this site know, one of the basic principles of the Navy offense is a numbering system. The players identify who is in "the count" on both sides of the formation based on how the defense lines up. The count determines blocking assignments and the quarterback's reads. There are three numbers in the count: #1 is the quarterback's dive key, #2 is the quarterback's pitch key, and #3 is the secondary player assigned to play in run support. One of the quarterback's jobs before the snap is to survey the defense to identify those players. The way the #3 is identified is by picking out any player in the secondary who is lined up within five yards of the line of scrimmage. If the quarterback sees a side of the formation that doesn't have a #3, that's a numbers advantage, and he will check the play to run it to that side.
None of WKU's secondary players were lined up within five yards of the line of scrimmage. That gave Navy a numbers advantage on both sides of the formation, and they were able to capitalize on their good fortune:
WKU attempted to counter this by firing the corner, something rarely done when the corner is playing so far off the line:
Most defenses, when they fire the cornerback, change the safety assignments to keep from having the wide receiver running uncovered down the sideline. WKU... didn't.
The Hilltopper safeties also had trouble getting their eyes right. When a defense has its safeties playing man defense on the slotbacks, they have to be especially careful to guard against play action. In this play, Navy ran the wheel-post route combination. Both the playside safety and the cornerback took the wheel route. That put the other safety in an impossible situation; after following the slotback's motion one way, he had to reverse his direction to cover a wide receiver running at full speed in the opposite direction.
Believe it or not, Navy's offense didn't play well that day, with dropped passes, four fumbles, and plays getting mixed up out of the huddle. They still managed to churn out 510 yards of offense. It's probably a safe bet that Guidry will return to the drawing board for this week's game plan. Indeed, Coach Huff mentioned this week that his staff had studied the last four years of Navy's offense in preparation for this game. Marshall may emulate some of the better defenses that the Mids have seen in that span: Memphis, Cincinnati, or the other service academies, perhaps.
In a way, it doesn't matter what they do as much as how they do it. While some defenses are definitely better than others against the option, you aren't going to come up with anything that Navy's coaches haven't seen before. The teams that have the best success against the Mids are the ones that win their individual position matchups. In that, Marshall will be a stiff test.
The heart and soul of the Marshall defense, and really the whole team, is their defensive line. They aren't very big, but they are exceptionally quick and athletic. Last year's statistical standout, Darius Hodge, now suits up for the Cincinnati Bengals. The other three starters return, led by defensive end Koby Cumberlander and all-conference defensive tackle Jamare Edwards.
The Marshall line presents a few specific challenges to the Navy offense. Perhaps counterintuitively, they are good at keeping offensive linemen from getting to the second level. They don't do so through physical heft but rather by being fast and nimble. Against the outside zone, they use their quickness to shoot gaps on the snap of the ball. Offensive linemen trying to keep them out of the backfield lose track of safeties and linebackers running to the ball.
Marshall's defensive line is also athletic enough to out-leverage offensive lines. Rather than allow themselves to get pushed backward, they undercut offensive linemen, creating a pile that frees up defenders on the second and third levels.
The Herd also presents a matchup issue for this particular Navy team. The Mids are coming off of a season where they were fundamentally unsound. They will have a young quarterback and a new starter at fullback. If the Navy offense is a step too slow, or if there is any kind of hiccup at the mesh, players like Cumberlander are fast enough to track the play down from behind. For that reason, the Mids must be able to run between the tackles.
That's the bottom line for Navy this week. It's not that Marshall is unbeatable. It's that they force you to be precise in your execution and will make you pay if you are not. After last season, Navy has to prove that they can execute their offense at a high level with key players who don't have much game experience. While that isn't impossible, it's far from a given.
Any season opener is a big game, but this one stands out as being particularly important. Both teams want to set the tone for the season. For Marshall, the era of good feelings that comes with any new coaching hire lasts only up until his first loss. They'll want to extend the honeymoon as long as possible. For Navy, they will be hungry to prove that last year's struggles were an aberration and that the program is back on solid footing. This matchup might be flying under the radar for most fans, but it has a chance to be one of Saturday's best.
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