BOGACZYK: Lang, Late Drive Lift Herd in Packed ‘Joan’
The Word on the Herd-Sept. 6, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Long before kickoff, Marshall’s 2015 football opener against Purdue was marqueed as the first time a Big Ten Conference team would visit the Herd.
By the finish Sunday evening at packed Joan C. Edwards Stadium, it was another first that the Thundering Herd Nation was trumpeting.
Junior safety Tiquan Lang started and finished Marshall’s come-from-behind 41-31 victory over the Boilermakers with two interception returns for touchdowns – a first in Herd history.
His performance – it also included a game-high 17 tackles and a quarterback hurry that led to another Herd pick – not only set a Marshall single-game record for interception TDs, but also tied the Herd season record.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Herd Coach Doc Holliday said of the 5-foot-9, 182-pound boundary safety. “He’s got ‘it.’ You talk a lot about the ‘it’ factor and he’s not extremely big, he’s not extremely fast, but he’s a helluva football player. He makes plays and he sure did today.”
Lang didn’t do it alone before a sellout crowd of 38,791, the third largest gathering in stadium history as the Herd opened the 25th season at “The Joan” with its biggest gathering for a date that wasn’t a “Coal Bowl” against West Virginia.
Quarterback Michael Birdsong, the James Madison transfer making his first Herd start, was 23-of-36 passing for 234 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He was clutch when it counted most, too, going 7-for-8 on a fourth-quarter scoring drive that lifted Marshall to a 34-31 advantage with 2:50 left.
It was Marshall’s first win in history over a Big Ten team, and Birdsong became the first Herd quarterback to beat a power conference team in a season opener since Chad Pennington started his senior season with a triumph at Clemson for the 1999 club that would finish 13-0.
The Herd victory also was the fourth in nine games of the opening college football weekend by Group of Five teams over Power 5 conference clubs. The other Group of Five winners were Boise State over Washington, Temple over Penn State and Hawaii over Colorado.
A 30-yard pick-six of Boilers’ QB Austin Appleby by Lang came on the first play of the game. The junior safety’s second pickoff runback was a 55-yarder that sealed the win with 1:20 to go. He had half of the Herd’s four picks.
“I just saw the ball and the end zone,” Lang said of his game-opening pick in the left flat. “We wanted to get turnovers, make an impact. The one late, I saw them trying to go deep. Really, the ball came right to me, and I had to make a play.
“It was just get our team ahead … made a great decision. No one was going to stop me. When I caught it, I turned back into my running back days then.”
Lang became only the second player in the 20-season history of Conference USA to score two touchdowns on interceptions, matching the feat by Cincinnati’s Shawn Ferguson in a loss Memphis on Oct. 17, 1998 at the Liberty Bowl. Like Lang on Sunday, Danny Derricott had two in that ’99 game.
Lang’s fellow safety, Taj Letman, made his sixth career interception in the third quarter when Lang got into Appleby’s grill, and cornerback Keith Baxter finished a long day for the MU defense with a game-ending interception and a 32-yard return with 27 seconds remaining.
It was the first time Marshall had four picks in a game since a 32-14 victory at Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 2, 1999 – the Herd’s first victory in Oxford, Ohio, in 60 years.
Lang made a third pick – this one early in the second quarter – but it was erased when Herd corner Rodney Allen was flagged for pass interference on the play.
Lang only emerged as the boundary safety starter in the last week and was coming off hernia surgery in January, and then left school in the spring semester to return home to Valdosta, Ga., with what he called “family issues. I just had to go home.”
“It feels great,” Lang said. “I worked so hard for this, and my teammates, they helped me so much. I came back in May after being home and worked my tail off. I came out to play hard, wanted to show I was back.
“(August) camp was real hard after being away, but the team welcomed me back, made me feel good. I had a great camp, because it was up to me to show what I could do and that I was back.”
Lang said his game-opening touchdown set the tone for his career-high 17 tackles, too.
“It set a big tone,” he said. “That was a good team we played, a tough team, but we showed that our defense came to make plays. We bleed just like they bleed. We’ve got heart just like they do. It’s whoever has the biggest heart when it counts most.
“The crowd … and with a big win. It shows the fans we’re here to win. I want them to come out every game and support us like that.”
Lang and his defensive mates were on the field for a wilting 95 plays on a steamy Labor Day weekend. Purdue finished with a time of possession of 34:47, and in the first half the Big Ten visitors had the ball for 18:09 and 48 plays.
It didn’t help when the Herd lost veteran nose tackle Jarquez Samuel early in the game with a shoulder injury, but Marshall got big games from ends Gary Thompson (10 tackles, a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and three hurries) and Armonze Daniel (career-high nine tackles). Corner Corey Tindal had 10 stops and three pass break-ups.
“It was the same old, same old,” said Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, whose troops have had five interceptions-to-scores in his 29 games as the MU defensive boss. “We want to hold people to 35 percent on third down and in the first half they convert 6-of-11. We couldn’t get off the field. We were close to making plays, just right there, it was like everything was up hill.
“For example, we got that one interception, but it was a PI (pass interference), so we had to resolve to go make some plays in the second half and we did.
“Lang was terrific. He went home with family issues, but he’s a guy who’s always had good football in him. He’s a football guy, loves it, plays bigger than he is. He’s focused, he’s got instincts, got feel. He’s got the things you don’t coach and those are valuable guys. He’s not very big, but he’s great at what he does.
“We talked about our ends having to have presence and then you saw all that. I’ll tell you, I think this team is tough. I think we’ve got a lot of grit here. And this was all about grit. It was like we were sweating uphill the whole day for a lot of different reasons and eventually we started making some plays, which helped us win the football game.”
Nick Smith booted 42- and 32-yard field goals in his first game as the Herd’s principal place-kicker, and veteran punter Tyler Williams averaged 43.6 yards on five punts, including field-flipping 54- and 60-yarders.
Offensively, running back Devon Johnson gained 89 yards on 11 carries, but his fumble at the end of a 33-yard run to close the third quarter left Purdue with the ball on its own 25 and a 28-27 lead. The Boilermakers then drove for a Paul Griggs’ 22-yard field goal and the teams traded punts before Birdsong made his debut in kelly green special.
From the Marshall 16, the red-haired QB drove his team 84 yards in 11 plays for a 34-31 lead with 4:41 left. Johnson finished the drive with a 6-yard TD, but most of the real estate was covered by Birdsong on a 7-of-8 passing stretch.
He completed passes to slot receiver Hyleck Foster, wideout Justin Hunt and tight end Ryan Yurachek for 2, 9 and 21 yards before connecting with senior Davonte Allen for 5 to get the Herd into Boilers’ territory. Then it was to Yurachek for 8 and Allen for 19 sandwiching a Johnson short rush before an incompletion and another 18-yarder to Allen to set up Johnson’s bull into the end zone for a lead. “You could see it on that run he scored on,” Birdsong said when asked about Johnson bouncing back from his fumble. “He got bent at the line of scrimmage and then he just broke a few tackles and spun in there. You could see right there, how bad he wanted it.
“On that last series Coach (Bill) Legg (offensive coordinator) just put us in the right situation. He said, ‘Take what they give us,’ and that’s what we did, how we were able to march down the field. They were giving us the underneath stuff. And when we hit those, it was huge. They were playing off on No. 3 (Allen) and you know, when you’re playing off on him, you can see the damage he did. Two smoke routes, one for 5 and another one broke down the sidelines so that was huge. He came up big.”
He was far from alone, as Holliday noted. It was the largest crowd for a Marshall triumph since Oct. 1, 2011, when 53,267 watched the Herd and rookie QB Rakeem Cato win over host Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
“I thought our team showed a lot of heart and came out in the second half and played extremely well,” Holliday said. “Our strength program and the way we practiced was the reason we won that football game. I thought the second half showed we were in great shape. We played extremely hard. The defense played well.
“The No. 1 thing I’m proud of is our fan base. How about that crowd? That’s what happens with great programs and great teams and your fans show up like that. The biggest reason we won that game was because of the people that showed up and showed off and I can’t say enough how proud I am of our fans.”