Aug. 30, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
OXFORD, Ohio - There was a common theme just outside the visitors' locker room at Yager Stadium on Saturday evening.
"I just told the offense, `Keep a cool head, keep playing ball,'" Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato said. "I thought our whole sideline, not only the offense, but the defense, everybody kept their composure. We knew we were going to have adversity, and I think we responded great to adversity."
After the Herd outlasted Miami (Ohio), 42-27, in in the 2014 football season opener, it seemed there was an echo outside the Marshall dressing quarters.
"The coaches were talking to us all weekend, yesterday and today," sophomore safety A.J. Leggett said after his fifth career interception stopped a RedHawks' third-quarter drive. "You're going to have adversity. You're going to have to go out and fight through adversity and get the job done."
In the Herd's other backfield, the sentiment was similar.
"We knew there would be adversity in the game, but we kept calm," said junior Devon Johnson, whose debut as a Herd running back was special and significant. "And like Coach (Doc) Holliday said in the second half, `They're going to come back out there and give us a fight and not lay down,' and that's what they did. We knew there was going to be adversity."
Miami didn't play the Herd - projected as a Conference USA champion and national contender - like a club with a new coach headed for its 17th straight defeat. Marshall had to handle adversity and the resilient RedHawks.
Well, Cato was 14-of-18 passing in the first half - and the bulge was 28-3 -- before Miami took control in the third quarter. Then, the Herd bounced back by running over the RedHawks and that other foe - adversity.
Johnson ran for 151 yards on 19 carries, with two touchdowns. He had a 55-yard gallop in the first half, when he carried seven times for 77 yards. His biggest run, however, came on a fourth-and-2 roll the dice with just under nine minutes left in the game ... and the RedHawks having cut the Herd lead to 28-20.
Johnson went 27 yards up the middle to score. Miami scored on its next possession, but Cato took Marshall 65 yards in 11 plays for the clincher on his 2-yard run.
"He was huge," Cato said of Johnson, the former linebacker and tight end who has become the senior quarterback's new blitz protector. "For all the small yards and all the big gains he had, he did what he had to do. Go hard, do the job and he did the job to a 100 percent level.
"He means so much to our offense that you've got to account for him and he's just keeps getting better and better at the position ... and we're going to keep feeding him and he's going to keep doing the same thing."
What Johnson did was something no Herd running back had done before. Johnson had the most ground yards for a Marshall back - in history - in a season opener against major college competition.
Johnson, who rushed for 4,340 yards in his high school career at Richlands (Va.), had the most ground yards in a Herd opener since Erik Thomas went for 173 on 18 carries against Howard in 1996 - the Herd's final NCAA Division I-AA season.
"It feels good (carrying the ball); it brings back old memories," Johnson said. "Our line did a great job, and it paid off. It feels good, just being back (at running back). I was very excited. We didn't get that fourth-down call (when officials ruled Johnson was stopped short on the series before his 27-yard TD) but we went back out and got another score.
"I had a little personal goal, mostly to get the win, a couple of touchdowns and protecting Cato; I didn't lay down on that. I didn't think I had 150 (yards). When they told me I had 150, I was shocked."
The 243-pound bullish back said he turned it up a notch in the fourth quarter.
"The game was getting close," Johnson said. "We needed a spark and I wanted to be that spark and help the team get a win."
Cato finished 20-of-32 for 261 passing yards with three touchdowns, extending his streak of consecutive games with a TD pass to 33. The NCAA record is 38 by Russell Wilson (2009-11 at N.C. State and Wisconsin). Cato's three scoring passes were all in the red zone, giving him 61 career red zone TD passes, with only one interception (last season in a win at Tulsa).
Senior tight end Eric Frohnapfel caught two scoring passes in the same game for the first time in his Herd career and led Marshall with five receptions, but was may have been more crucial than his red-zone "imitation" of his predecessor - Gator Hoskins - was a third-down, 29-yard reception a few plays after the hosts had cut the difference to 35-27.
"Absolutely, "the 6-foot-7 Frohnapfel said. "That was a good read by Cato. They sort of dropped everybody and I wasn't open at first but he kept his eyes downfield and he made a good ball. At that point in the game, we really needed a big chunk of yards and I was glad to get it."
It paved the way to the Herd's clinching touchdown and helped Marshall finish off a Miami club that rode quarterback Andrew Hendrix's 318 air yards and a few spectacular catches by his receivers to a tighter game than most may have expected after the RedHawks' 52-14 loss at Edwards Stadium last season.
The Herd defense was victimized by some long pass plays, and Holliday said his team really missed rangy cornerback Keith Baxter, who sat out the opener with a hamstring problem that sidelined him late in August camp.
The Marshall defense also was on the field for 85 plays as Miami had nearly 35 minutes time of possession. In the first half, however, the Herd had three fourth-down stops and turned another Miami opportunity at the Herd 5 into a field goal. Leggett's 10 tackles led Marshall.
Holliday called cornerback Darryl Roberts' defending a Hendrix-to-David Frazier pass on fourth down at the Herd 1 "the biggest play of the game, to be honest," because it ended the half with the Herd on top by 24.
"We rolled a lot of guys in and out of there (on defense) and I don't know how many total plays there were," Holliday said of the lopsided time of possession. "I thought our defense played well for the most part ... We gave up some big plays we normally don't give up, but their quarterback made some great throws. We'll go back and go to work to get better."
Holliday reminded the postgame gathering that coaches' mantra that "the most improvement you make as a football team is Game 1 to Game 2 ... and we've got to make sure we do that."
And for the large contingent of Herd fans in the Yager Stadium crowd of 19,005, the game may have been a wake-up call of sorts. Holliday was asked if the closer-than-expected opener will tamp down some of the notion that the Herd will cruise to victory each time out.
"It's never easy, period," Holliday said. "Wins are hard to come by these days. You think you're going to stroll into somebody's place, especially on the road. It isn't easy. Winning is hard. But it's good. I'm glad we had a little adversity here; we needed that. Our kids responded well.
"The bottom line is you walk out with a win. Winning is all that matters. I'm sure we'll pick up the paper tomorrow and I don't know who it's going to be, but somebody's going to get beat that shouldn't. Maybe they already have. I don't know. But it happens every weekend.
"Somebody will get beat that shouldn't. I'm glad it wasn't us."