HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- At a certain point during a Marshall University football practice, the concept of defense is rendered entirely irrelevant. The field is cleared until nothing remains on the turfgrass surface except a quarterback and his receivers; instead of competing against the physicality of an opposing force, the offense is locked in a race against the temporality of the universe. The quarterback hands off or throws a quick slant or slings a deep pass depending entirely upon the narrative of the sports movie playing inside his own head. This is modern college football, stripped to its bones, and it is an enlightening and bizarre piece of experimental theater.
The idea of this drill -- called "Tempo" -- is simple: to play football as fast you humanly can. And while many teams strived, no team in the country was more efficient at achieving this directive last season than Marshall. "We just ran 42 plays in 20 minutes," Bill Legg tells me, walking toward the edge of the field upon completion of the drill, which ends with a deep pass, and a touchdown catch against (literally) zero coverage, and a vaudevillian flourish in which four different Marshall receivers flip the ball to each other in the end zone.
Legg is the Thundering Herd's offensive coordinator, a mostly bald ex-lineman who played for Don Nehlen up a few country roads at West Virginia University in the 1980s. He tallies the numbers again in his head, and he smiles, and he waits to gauge my reaction. He does this sometimes, when I'm asking him about his offense. He stops in the middle of a thought, and he pauses, and he grins, as if allowing his listener a moment to catch up and process the meaning of what he's just said. He is a colorful man who speaks in weighty metaphors, a man who, in a roughly hour-long conversation about tactics and strategies, likens the evolution of the college football offense to the progression of the wheel and the development of the personal computer.
"Think about computers now versus computers 20 years ago," he says. "We're still looking for the same information we were back then, OK? It just took us more time to get to it."
Last year, Marshall ran 90.6 plays per game; no other team in the country ran more than 88 (Oregon ran only 81.4). The Thundering Herd and quarterback Rakeem Cato led the nation in passing yards per game and were second in pass attempts per game and seventh in points per game, putting up an average of more than 40 per week. They became the apotheosis of the hurry-up offense, so much so that Texas coach Mack Brown specifically mentioned the Thundering Herd's pace when he discussed what he wanted his offense to look like this season, which is not the kind of praise that reaches Huntington very often, especially when the local eleven finishes a season with a 5-7 record. And the lingering question among Marshall's modest but sturdy fan base -- many of whom date back to the 1970 plane crash that decimated the program -- is whether things might be moving too fast; the lingering question is whether, by embracing speed, defense became a secondary proposition for Marshall (it gave up 43.1 points per game). And the questions at Marshall lead directly into to the overarching question facing college football as whole, which is whether hurry-up offenses are a sustainable evolution of the game or merely a fleeting and unbalanced cultural trend.
"Last year," Legg tells me, "we ran about 85 percent of the time in our 'fast' tempo, five percent 'medium' tempo, and 10 percent 'slowdown' tempo."
I ask him what he'd like it to be. And he leans back in his chair.
"I'd prefer to be, like, 99 percent fast tempo," he says.
* * *
So let's run with Legg's metaphor of the personal computer, because it seems an aptly Gladwellian way to get at the central premise of the Marshall offense. At a basic level, Legg likes to say, there is nothing new about what Marshall (or any other modern offense) is doing. The Thundering Herd, like Oregon or Oklahoma State or Purdue or Louisiana Tech before them, are merely co-opting and combining varied elements and influences into their sets, and then cycling through their options with as much speed as they can handle. It looks more complicated than it is, in that there are sideline signal-callers and goofy Oregon-like placards meant to denote varied "pods" of plays -- if say, two receivers on the left side are meant to run slants -- but in the end, it is all in the hands of the quarterback. Until the quarterback actually makes his decision, no one else in the Marshall offense knows what might happen. If the outside receivers on the right side are assigned to set up a screen, they run that screen even if the quarterback chooses to hand the ball off to the tailback.
Sixty-five or 70 percent of the time last season, Legg called a run play; the Thundering Herd wound up throwing the ball nearly 58 percent of the time to 20 different receivers, because Cato made a simple read -- seeing, say, one high safety instead of two, or a linebacker matched up against a slot receiver (5-foot-7 wideout Tommy Shuler had a monster season, catching 110 passes) -- and chose not to hand the ball off to a running back, who bursts through the same hole whether he's actually given the ball or not. Only Cato knows what the entire offense is doing. Everyone else is just playing "assignment football."
In this way, there is no hesitation, no need to check the play at the line (unless, say, you want to audible to a deep pass), no worries about offensive line matchups (since the ball is released quickly) and no time for the defense to either disguise its schemes or adjust. There is a short list of plays, and there are roughly three options built into each play, and the options may change by the week, but there is no need for a thick playbook, or any sort of playbook at all. It is merely the quarterback's choice where to go with the ball. It is, Legg tells me, a souped-up iteration of the old triple-option offense, which I guess is like saying a Bentley is a souped-up iteration of the Model T: It's inherently true, even if it feels like a fundamentally different object.
The central principles at Marshall are the same as with pretty much any offense: The Herd want to keep the chains moving (they converted 54.6 percent of third-downs last year, second in the country), and they want to score in the red zone (which they did 87.72 percent of the time, 19th in the country), and they want to protect the football. The idea is to gain an edge; that this edge was found in part because Marshall ran more plays than anyone else, Legg says, was merely "the gravy on the potatoes."
"Everybody's trying to gain an advantage," he says. "If you put two 6-foot-6, 315-pound linemen in a phone booth and let them beat each other to death, eventually one's gonna win. But if one guy's 5-foot-6, 215, that's not the same. So we want to give our 5-foot-6 guy the tools to do multiple things where it's not just brute strength against brute strength. If we've given our guy more knowledge, he's gained an advantage."
* * *
All of this is possible, Legg tells me, because the science of quarterbacking has changed, because quarterbacks now come of age in more complex systems, because they can process information with more speed than the generation that came before. They grow up playing in 7-on-7 leagues; by the time they reach high school, if they are raised in football-friendly communities in Ohio or Florida or Texas or California, they're so fundamentally schooled in the ways of the passing game that they might throw the ball 30 or 40 times a game. The world moves faster, and so it only makes sense that football would trend faster, too.
"I don't know the last time I've been in a huddle," says Cato, who threw for 4,201 yards and 37 touchdowns a year ago. He grew up in a troubled neighborhood in Miami, grew up hurling rocks before he was big enough to handle a football. His father was in and out of prison and his mother died of pneumonia when he was 12 years old, and he was raised by his grandparents and older sisters, taking refuge in the game. At Miami Central High School, he was schooled in an iteration of the hurry-up; in 2010, as a reed-thin 160-pound senior who could barely lift the bar in the weight room, he led Miami Central to a state championship. Shuler, his favorite target at Marshall, was his high-school teammate, and convinced him to come to Huntington, and on Friday nights before games, they sit and watch film on a laptop computer borrowed from the coaches. Legg, who's spent time at Purdue and was the tight ends coach while Byron Leftwich was the starter during a previous stop at Marshall, claims Cato has the highest "football IQ" of any quarterback he's ever coached.
"The great thing about our offense," Cato tells me, "is that you don't have to sit down and wait all day. You don't have to sit there and ask yourself if they're in Cover-2 or Cover-3. The main thing is just going fast. Our defense tells us sometimes to slow it down."
* * *
Defense, of course, was Marshall's sole reason for mediocrity last season, and while the Herd's head coach, Doc Holliday, tells me he believes it was more a personnel problem than any residual effect of Legg's offensive philosophy affecting time of possession (they were 98th in the nation in TOP), these questions will linger until the Herd (and schools who play like them) can prove otherwise. This is a pivotal season for Holliday, who in his first three years has gone 17-20. This year, Marshall is expected to be among the elite programs in Conference USA, and if it doesn't happen -- if new defensive coordinator Chuck Heater cannot turn around a unit that gave up nearly 460 yards per game last season -- then the questions will fall back on Legg's hurry-up, because it makes for an easy scapegoat, because by nature it seeks to defy the conservative trope that defense wins championships.
But really, what other path forward is there for a school like Marshall? There are no in-state recruits to woo, and they're overshadowed in their own backyard by West Virginia. In the years since the plane crash that inspired a Matthew McConaughey film, they've tried to make the climb back up the ladder, from Division I-AA (where they won a national championship), to dominance of the Mid-American Conference behind a quarterback named Pennington and a flamboyant wide receiver named Moss, and into the midsection of the FBS, into a conference whose future is in perpetual limbo. Holliday travels to Florida (where he once coached under Urban Meyer) and other far-flung states to lure talent, and it helps to have a hook, to be able to say to recruits that they should take their talents to a rural patch of West Virginia for a reason.
"The one thing this offense does for you, it's a great equalizer," Holliday tells me. "But what's it doing to the defenses? You can't tell me Oklahoma doesn't have great defenses or great players. With the matchups this offense creates, people aren't recruiting enough of the right guys to match up to it."
That will change, as defensive recruiting classes change, as coordinators devise ways to shuttle personnel in and out of games to match up with the offense. It is a constant push and pull, and men like Bill Legg are merely seeking a way to stay in front of the curve, to wrestle against the fleeting and temporal nature of their careers as football coaches. You move fast to avoid being overwhelmed by superior talent; you move fast to attempt to stay employed. You move fast because, in the modern age of college football, the best way to win the fight is often to get ahead of the fight itself.