MU offense never rests
HUNTINGTON — In his decades-long pursuit of football happiness, Bill Legg's first offense was the wishbone.
Most of his Marshall pupils don't have a clue about this piece of football Americana, and would be mortified if they tried to learn that three-back anachronism. But that's what Legg's Poca Dots ran, back in the day.
When Legg left the Dots for West Virginia, his horizons broadened.
"I grew up in wishbone and I transitioned to pro-I as a [college] player," said Legg, finishing his fourth year as MU's offensive coordinator. "And then I had the opportunity, although brief, to be a one-back system as a player.
"And what I've learned from all those deals is that fundamentals are what win the football game; that's number one. But number two, if you have the willingness to do so, you can challenge the defense on every single play, and put people in conflict every single play. But you have to be willing to do it.
"The wishbone kind of did that, in its own way. Checking from one play to the other in the pro-I kind of did that, in its own way. What we've done and what I've learned, stolen, and kind of melted together, along with all the assistants I worked with over the years, things I've learned from head coaches and coordinators; as a coordinator, the things that other assistants have brought to the table, has allowed us to transition to where we are today."
That's a mouthful, but it describes how coaching philosophies evolve. Consider where Legg has been.
After his graduate assistant days at WVU, he might have had his most interesting assignment — a one-year spin as offensive coordinator at West Virginia Tech in 1988. His first full-time Division I job came at Eastern Illinois under Bob Spoo, and he spent the 1994 season at Virginia Military Institute under future WVU head coach Bill Stewart.
Legg went back to WVU for the final six years of Don Nehlen's tenure, rising to offensive coordinator in the final season of 2000. When the Nehlen era ended, he spent 2001 and 2002 as MU's tight ends coach, watching Byron Leftwich operate one of the most high-powered offenses in Thundering Herd history.
From there, he went to the Big Ten and helped operate the rather un-Big Ten-like offense at Purdue. By the time he rose to co-offensive coordinator at Purdue in 2006-07, Curtis Painter was consistently throwing for 300 yards and the Boilermakers were scoring upwards of 35 points per game.
When Joe Tiller retired and new coach Danny Hope replaced him, Legg still was ready to run his own offense, and it wasn't going to be a stinkin' wishbone. It surely wasn't in his two seasons at Florida International, an offense whose numbers he helped bolster before new Marshall coach Doc Holliday called.
Legg couldn't put in the system he wanted in 2010 or 2011. In 2010, he had much of the previous regime's personnel, which wasn't terrible by any stretch. But consider this: Would mash-'em-up tight end Lee Smith work as a Gator Hoskins-type hybrid?
And in 2011, Legg wasn't about to dump a complicated hyper-tempo offense on true freshman Rakeem Cato. In retrospect, the Miami native got what he needed — a chance to get his feet wet in the college game, a time to learn a harsh lesson in life (the midseason benching) and a chance to build some mechanical fundamentals. And Legg knew an offseason in the weight room would do the youngster good.
In the spring of 2011, the shackles came off Cato and the MU offense. The system was the talk of the spring season, but nobody grasped just how fast the tempo would be in games.
The West Virginia game, a 69-34 disaster it was for the Herd, dropped a hint. Cato and Co. seemed oblivious to the scoreboard, cranking out one play and then lining back out to run another one. The Herd ran 101 scrimmage plays in 32 minutes, 57 seconds of possession, an average of one play every 19.5 seconds.
A few weeks later, the Herd lost 51-41 at Purdue, but just about wore the Boilermakers out. Even the pressbox public address announcer seemed tired — when quarterback Caleb TerBush took his final knees, the announcer said with a tinge of relief: "On the 180th snap, the game is over. Purdue 51, Marshall 41."
Who needs a 40-second play clock?
Cato and Co. piled up numbers bordering on Arena Football, with Cato throwing for 4,201 yards and 37 touchdowns against 11 interceptions — easily good enough to win Conference USA's Most Valuable Player Award. The Herd topped 40 points per game, a barrier it hadn't hit since joining Division I-A in 1997.
As the groundwork was laid for that attack back in 2011, the development of Cato wasn't the only plan. The grooming of Gator Hoskins and the since-departed C.J. Crawford as leaner tight ends helped the Herd keep the same personnel on the field for most of its possessions — thus hampering the defense's efforts to substitute.
"We're able to flex him out and play wideout, do all the things that wideouts do," Legg said. "We can attach him and ask him to do all the things a tight end on the line does. We can put him in the backfield and have him do all the things a fullback does.
"And not have to change our people on the field, where most [offenses] have to have three different personnel groupings to get that accomplished."
Two big problems with the 2012 season, which finished with a 5-7 record: (a) Five of the Herd's 20 turnovers were returned for defensive touchdowns and (b) MU's defense was dreadful.
But Legg was not going to use defensive woes as a crutch. You almost never hear assistants publicly complain about their team's performance on the other side of the ball, and Legg will not be an exception.
"We led the country in passing, yeah, but we were 5-7," he said. "Part of the issue we had is we didn't have much balance, we couldn't put games away and that kind of stuff. Where this year, one of the things that has helped us is, yeah, maybe we didn't lead the nation in passing but we're in the top 20, 25 in both run and pass.
"And we still finished in the top five to 10 in scoring, total offense and first downs, which is where the game's won. Maybe we went about it a little different way — we really ran the same concepts as last year, tweaked some things, added some new things, expanded it a little bit because we felt like we had an older group that can handle it. That's allowed us to be more balanced, yet at the same time more productive."
The Herd has raised its scoring average from 40.9 last year to 43.0, ranking it seventh in the FBS entering the bowl season. It is 22nd in rushing offense (211.2), 21st in passing yardage (291.2), 12th in total yardage (502.3) and a shiny fifth in third-down conversion rate (.523).
Cato took a "demotion" from C-USA MVP to Offensive Player of the Year, as he took a step behind East Carolina's Shane Carden. Big whoopin' deal.
Legg said Cato has become masterful in getting his team into the most optimal play, and that's not easy. At times, the Herd offense looks simple with limited formations and not a lot of motion, but there are enough nuances to keep a defensive coordinator up late.
"In theory we don't [have a lot of plays], but we have the ability to create 1,000 different combinations," Legg said. "It comes down to the decision-making process — what is the defense giving us? Are they defending the run and if they are, what passes are they vulnerable to? Are they defending the pass? If so, what runs are they vulnerable to?
"And we've gotten to where the kid behind center is where we wanted to get to, is becoming that guy who can recognize all those different facets. And when I give him those combinations of plays, he's hitting it at probably between 96, 98 percent being right getting us into the best possible play."
Remember, Legg engineered all this tweaking of the offense with an entirely new staff on that side. He knew line coach Alex Mirabal from his FIU days and Todd Hartley came over from defense, but Legg was not as familiar with receivers coach Mike Furrey and running backs coach Thomas Brown.
And Legg changed his position emphasis from tight ends and tackles to the quarterbacks, filling the void left when Tony Petersen went to Louisiana Tech.
By several accounts, that transition went smoothly.
"One thing about coach Petersen, he played quarterback. He was more technique-based," said Blake Frohnapfel, the No. 2 QB. "Whereas coach Legg will show us more about the offense, little things to look at that I may not necessarily have looked at before."
"What a lot of people don't know, my very first job I was a quarterback coach," Legg said. "My first full-time job I was a quarterback coach. And then I moved back to offensive line, and then I went to tight ends, then I went back to offensive line. Then I went back to quarterbacks, then back to offensive line — and then I went back to tight ends and now I'm back at quarterbacks."
And he's back in the postseason, preparing for Marshall's battle with Maryland in the Military Bowl. Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. Friday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
To Legg, the object is not just to win a 10th game, something Marshall has done 13 times. There are larger purposes.
"It's been rewarding from the standpoint that we've seen a lot of young guys mature," he said of this 9-4 season. "Not just in their game [but] in every facet of their life. And so from that standpoint, it's very rewarding. And as a result, there's been a lot more positives than negatives.
"We're still not all the way where we want to be. That's why this bowl is so critical, because it gives us another chance to improve, gives us another chance to develop, gives us another day to mature that much more.
"We want to keep climbing that mountain until we get to the very top, and we want to stay up there as long as the good Lord's willing and the creek don't rise."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.