SPORTS COLUMN: LEARNING FROM EKU

Because it was a romp over an FCS opponent, Marshall’s 59-0 victory over Eastern Kentucky Saturday will receive an understandably tepid and cautious response from many people.

However, the talent disparity on the field does not mean that the game did not present instances where fans, coaches and members of the media could learn about the Thundering Herd football team. 

Offensively, it starts with Grant Wells. One way to look at his performance is to state that Isaiah Green threw for four touchdowns last season in the opener against VMI, so Wells’ performance may not be indicative of what is to come?

But I look at it a different way. If you evaluate the throws Wells made in the game and compare them to Green’s against VMI, or even back in 2017 against Miami (OH), Wells was more efficient, accurate and explosive. 

He made tight window throws. He made deep throws, short throws and everything in between. Moreover, his ball placement was perfect on most of his throws. He had seven incompletions, but he did not have any errant passes.  

His two deep post completions to Jaron Woodyard and Talik Keaton were in stride and placed over the shoulder. With that placement, it would not have mattered who the corner was because he would not have had a chance to break up the pass. 

Wells also made two other high-profile throws. He completed one to Gaines and another to Broc Thompson. On both completions, he placed the ball right on the edge of the sideline for the receiver to get a foot inbounds. 

Based on these throws, there is enough evidence for fans and coaches to be excited about his potential and not feel hesitant about getting their hopes up. 

That being said, it should be expected for him to struggle at some point this year or at least be challenged. However, the potential and tools for success are there. 

Furthermore, the depth of the skill positions on offense was on full display. Eight different wide receivers caught a pass while five different tight ends caught a pass. Plus, four different running backs got to carry the ball.

In the 84 offense snaps, the Herd was in 11-personne1 for 73% of those snaps. 11-personnel is an example of football jargon that signifies the number of players the offense has on the field at each skill position. 

The first number represents the running back position; the second number represents the tight end position. From there, one can figure out how many receivers are on the field by deduction. Thus, 11-personnel means one running back, one tight end and three receivers are on the field. 

For 14% of its offensive snaps, the Herd was in 12-personnel, which was a huge staple last year with tight ends Gaines and Armani Levias.

Based on what the Marshall offense did on Saturday, it can be inferred that the team will be utilizing its receivers more than last year. Tight ends will stay an integral part of the offense, but it seems the receivers will play a bigger role.

In 2019, the tight end position was almost equal with the receiver position in total receptions. Tight ends caught 87 balls; receivers caught 92; and running backs caught the remaining 21.

In Saturday’s game, the receivers caught passes at a 26% higher rate than they did throughout the 2019 season. 

Defensively, Marshall pitched a shutout, holding the Colonels to less than 200 yards of total offense. 

There are definite positives to take away from the defense’s performance, but there remain questions that can only be answered by facing tougher competition.

Beginning with the positives, new starting Mike linebacker Eli Neal flashed throughout the game with his ability to get downhill and into the backfield to disrupt running plays. 

Another player that stood out was corner Jaylon McClain-Sapp. McClain-Sapp was not required to make any plays downfield, so where he flashed was in his run defense. 

He was physical and agile, showing a good propensity to shed or avoid blocks and make heavy, impactful contact with the ball carrier. There was one instance where he rushed his attempt to tackle the ball carrier, but the effort was there. 

Moving into some of the questions that remain, the defensive line had a solid day from its starting group, but there was a lack of apparent, impactful depth. The backup players played fine against EKU, but no one, especially in the interior, did enough to answer the D-line depth queries. 

The final question that remains for me is: who is the third corner? Finding an answer to this question is important for the defense’s nickel package. 

The third corner into the game was Josh Bowers, and he gave up a reception immediately. Such a small sample size is not enough to vanquish his potential, so he could be the answer. It is simply not yet apparent. 

The matchup with Appalachian State will be the needed step up in competition to challenge the Herd and answer remaining questions.

Grant Goodrich can be contacted at [email protected]