BOGACZYK: East Champion Herd Plunders Pirates, Now Waits on West|
Nov. 29, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – For Marshall’s football team, it was the ecstasy.
Now, it’s the agony … not that there’s anything wrong with that.
After the Herd thundered Friday afternoon into its first Conference USA Championship Game with a 59-28 East Division-clinching throttling of a nine-win East Carolina club, coach Doc Holliday’s team was left waiting to see who – and where … as Marshall makes its bid for a first league title since a 2002 Mid-American Conference crown.
“I’m excited about where we are,” Holliday said after his team’s fifth straight 500-yard offense day and the first five-game win streak for the MU program since 2004. “We’ve got one more week left. Our ultimate goal was not win the East, but to win the championship.
“So, this is all great, but it just gets us to that next step.”
Marshall (9-3, 7-1) isn’t likely to know the answers to the above until at least early Saturday evening, or perhaps as late as after 9 p.m. Sunday.
The Herd could be home for the Dec. 7 noon (EST) title game (ESPN2 telecast) against Rice (8-3, 6-1), Tulane (7-4, 5-2) or UTSA (7-4, 5-2), or – if the Owls win at home Saturday over the Green Wave – it could come down to a BCS standings tiebreaker with the division champs having one league loss apiece and no meeting during the regular season.
If Tulane or UTSA (at home Saturday to 4-7 Louisiana Tech) emerges from the wild West, Marshall gets a home title game because the Herd’s 7-1 conference record will be superior to a two-loss club.
If Rice wins to take the West, those tiebreaking BCS standings won’t be revealed until Sunday night. Entering this weekend’s play, the Owls were No. 55 in the extrapolated (beyond top 25) standings, while the Herd was No. 65.
However, Marshall should get a big boost by beating the No. 31 Pirates (9-3, 6-2), while Rice squares off Saturday against No. 72 Tulane.
Holliday said the Herd will worry about that Saturday and Sunday. On Black Friday before an Edwards Stadium crowd of 25,117 – Holliday called it “the biggest game in this stadium in 11 years” -- Marshall turned what was forecast as a close encounter into a Thanksgiving weekend feast.
“Every team we play this year, it’s based on how we play,” said Herd senior running back Essray Taliaferro, who rushed for a career-high 161 yards as Marshall bulled through the Pirates on the ground. “We predict the outcome, and if we come with our A-game this can come next week, or happen in the bowl game, or both.
“Everything is predicated off of us. We write our future.”
Taliaferro takes 1,006 ground yards into the title game, the first Herd back to rush for four figures since Darius Marshall went for 1,131 in 2009. On Senior Day, he played much like he did in last season’s finale at ECU, where he ran for 130 yards after emerging from deep on the depth chart.
“Taliaferro averaged 6.2 yards per carry and Steward Butler averaged 5.3 yards-per-carry (90 yards, 17 carries),” Holliday said of MU’s 267-yard ground game. “We were able to run the football and anytime we are able to do that we can stay pretty balanced. If we don’t turn the ball over (a Taliaferro fumble when the Herd was driving toward 31-0 lead before halftime), then this game isn’t even close.
“That disappoints me, but Taliaferro came back in and responded, running extremely well. He’s our most complete back right now with picking up blitzes, protections and seeing the right creases. I’m happy with our running game and (offensive coordinator) Bill Legg deserves an awful lot of credit for how well (quarterback) Rakeem Cato is playing.
“We were 10-of-14 on third downs which were huge. We scored when we got the ball in red zone, which was great.”
Taliaferro and the run game were far from the only Herd highlights. H-back Devon Johnson made the most of his increased playing time, scoring on two touchdown runs as the tailback in the Herd’s giant “Cheese” package – so named for 302-pound backup guard Blake “Cheese” Brooks, who lines up at fullback.
Johnson also had a 52-yard touchdown reception.
And the Herd defense played much better than the 440-yard ECU total offense number indicated. Freshman backup defensive end Gary Thompson had two interceptions, one that turned into a 5-yard touchdown on a ill-timed Shane Carden screen pass.
“On the sideline, the coaches were talking about level rushing,” Thompson said. “So, I went in, and I was at the level of the quarterback, so I decided to come back inside and it just happened when I looked inside, the ball was there so I picked it off and took it in.
“The coaches called it at the right time.”
Thompson’s pick-to-score was Marshall’s first for a defensive lineman since the late Johnathan Goddard picked off a Ryan Hawk pass and ran it back 23 yards at Ohio’s Peden Stadium for the Herd’s lone touchdown in a 16-13 win in October 2004.
Thompson’s interception return for a TD is Marshall’s third this season (following linebacker Raheem Waiters and cornerback Monterius Lovett). The last time Marshall had three interception return TDs in a single season was also ’04, by Goddard, Chris Royal and Robert Terrell.
The Herd pressured the talented Carden throughout, and for only the second time in two seasons, he failed to throw a scoring pass. The Pirates got 99 of those total yards in the fourth quarter, once the outcome was long decided in the last meeting of these teams at C-USA foes.
Safety Taj Letman also had a pick of Carden, as the Herd had a dozen hurries on the ECU quarterback.
“It was more getting to the quarterback and getting hits on him,” Thompson said, “and making him feel uncomfortable in the pocket because we realized he wanted to just sit in the pocket and throw the ball. If we let him do that, he was going to pick us off one-by-one.”
And while the Herd defense limited ECU to 7-of-18 on third down conversions, Marshall’s ability to ground out yardage and run the clock kept Carden and his top target – wideout Justin Hardy had 10 catches for 88 yards, but his longest reception was 21 yards – on the sideline.
Marshall’s 33:58 time of possession was its longest ball control in the last 29 games.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we went out there and played our best football game today … offense, defense, special teams,” Holliday said. “I don’t think there’s any question this is the best overall game we’ve played to date.”
The Herd’s balance was reflected in its 272 air yards – 5 more than the rushing net – from the arm of quarterback Rakeem Cato, who was 17-of-28 with two touchdowns and one interception. His leadership was key – again – as Marshall took the second-half kickoff after ECU had whittled the deficit to 24-10.
The Herd got a Deandre Reaves’ kickoff return of 42 yards to the Herd 47, and then Cato guided a nine-play, 53-yard scoring drive capped by Johnson’s “Cheesy” bull move into the end zone for a three-touchdown spread.
“I’m comfortable,” Johnson said of the Herd’s XXL unit. “We’ve got our big line. We’ve got Cheese, we’ve got Gator (Hoskins), we’ve got Froh (fellow tight end Eric Frohnapfel), all big dudes, so I feel very comfortable back there.”
Holliday got a Gatorade bath at game’s end. He said it was wet, cold – and something else.
“I wish they hadn’t done that, because that should be reserved for the championship game,” Holliday said. “I guess it’s been so long since we won one around here, they had to practice. I don’t know.”
SEEN ‘N’ HERD: Slot receiver Tommy Shuler led the Herd pass catchers -- as usual -- with nine receptions for 147 yards. His only career game with more yardage was at Purdue last season, when he had 200 on a school-record 19 receptions (which shares the C-USA single-game record) … Shuler moved into fifth place in Herd career history with 213 catches and his 2,279 yards rank 10th, passing former teammate Antavious Wilson by 5 yards. Next on the list is another ex-teammate, Aaron Dobson, at 2,398 … Shuler’s 2013 yardage total of 1,019 yards puts him 14th, and he joins Mike Barber, Randy Moss and Darius Watts as the only receivers in MU annals with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. Shuler’s 89 receptions this season rank no. 7 on the single season list. The 110 he had in 2012 in the Herd record …
Taliaferro’s 161-yard day was the 10th 100-yard rushing game for Marshall this season, which leads C-USA … The Herd is averaging 219.9 ground yards per game, its best rushing average since its return to major college football in 1997. The final NCAA Division I-AA Herd team – the national titlist at 15-0 in 1996 -- averaged 226.3 yards … Cato extended his school record of consecutive games with a TD pass to 30. Fresno State’s Derek Carr extended his longest streak among active QBs to 31 games on Friday against San Jose State.
Marshall’s 59 points – matching the Herd’s scoreboard total in last season’s 65-59 double overtime loss in Greenville, N.C. -- were the most allowed by East Carolina in a road game since Louisville had the same number in a 2004 C-USA game in Derby City. Only four home teams have scored more against ECU in its history (dating to 1932) … Marshall’s 9-3 record marks Herd’s first nine-win season since 2002 team went 11-2, winning the MAC title over Toledo and GMAC Bowl over Louisville … The Herd is 5-0 in November. Marshall hasn’t won five games in any calendar month since the 1991 Division I-AA runner-up team went 5-0 in November (for regular-season games, playoffs first round) … Holliday’s four Marshall teams are an impressive 15-4 in late-season games (after Oct. 28) … Marshall’s 7-1 C-USA record is a first. The only other winning record in nine C-USA seasons was 5-3 in 2011, the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl-winning club.