BOGACZYK: Herd Resilient, Resourceful for First C-USA Title
The Word on the Herd-Dec. 6, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - In these parts, December 2014 has yet to bring but a fleeting sliver of sunshine. But through the recurring raindrops, there was a distinct glow late Saturday afternoon, one that hadn't been seen in a dozen years at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
It was the shiny reflection from a conference championship trophy.
With a wall-like defense, an uncanny MVP place-kicker and more resilience than reliability, Marshall won its first Conference USA football title with a come-from-behind, 26-23 triumph over visiting Louisiana Tech in the league championship game.
Through the gloom and the gloaming, the Thundering Herd (12-1) erased the biggest deficit in a C-USA final - 10 points - to win in the league's 10-season history of title games.
Marshall trailed for 50 minutes, 55 seconds before a soaked and hand-wringing crowd of 23,711.
"It was a real struggle," Herd senior linebacker Neville Hewitt said.
He wasn't referring to the wildly celebrating fans' attempt to get the south end zone goal post up the northwest end zone ramp and through the gates.
"I heard it's down on Fourth (Avenue) right now," Hewitt grinned about a half-hour after the post's quick removal.
Hewitt's game-sealing, first-down interception of Tech quarterback Cody Sokol with 1:35 left came only 15 seconds after a scrambling Rakeem Cato found an equally improvising Deon-Tay McManus on a 5-yard touchdown pass -- their second scoring hookup of the game -- that gave the Herd its only lead.
Eight days after losing a 67-66 overtime stunner on the same field to Western Kentucky, this time Marshall and the Bulldogs (8-5) played a very different game. Eight days after allowing 738 yards, the Herd defense was masterful, especially in limiting Coach Skip Holtz's club to a 90-yard second half.
Those stoppers and Herd senior kicker Justin Haig - deservedly voted the game's Most Valuable Player - kept Marshall hopes alive for a first league title since the 2002 Mid-American crown.
Coach Doc Holliday's team had four turnovers (three fumbles and a Cato interception) and had a punt blocked, but still found a route to a 13th title in a fifth conference, dating to 1925.
"The defense was tremendous," Holliday said. "To turn the ball over like we did, to have the blocked punt like we did, and to find a way to win that football game ... I don't know if I've ever played or coached in a game where we made the mistakes that we made and still found a way to win, and that says so much about these kids.
"The way they fought ... Rev (Rev. Steve Harvey, the team chaplain), in Chapel this morning, used the word `resolve.' And that means whatever it takes to get this done. And they did."
The Bulldogs were missing five academically ineligible starters, but they made it anything but easy for the hosts. The Herd overcame personnel issues, too. Star running back Devon Johnson played only a few second-half snaps. Starting right guard Michael Selby went out - again - with an ankle sprain. By the finish, with the Herd trying to run out the clock, Holliday had No. 4 running back Tony Pittman in the game.
On defense, redshirt freshman Raheim Huskey played alongside Hewitt for most of the game, with regular Jermaine Holmes nursing a hamstring he injured in the loss to WKU. Huskey had two sacks. Cornerback Keith Baxter started, but lasted only a few plays before leaving in pain.
At one point in the first half, with sophomore corner/nickel Corey Tindal out briefly after an injury, the Herd had sophomore Michael Johnson at corner - he's played little on defense this season - and true freshman Antavis Rowe at nickel.
"Don't remind me, I know," Holliday said. "I was holding my breath, closing my eyes."
Haig had a career day as a fortuitous time. The Floridian was 4-for-4 on field goals, the first MU kicker with four in a game since Billy Malashevich was 4-for-4 in a 1999 win at Miami (Ohio). Haig's 46-yarder to send the teams to dry locker rooms at halftime was his career long try - and conversion.
He also had two 40-yarders and one from 24. He became the first kicker with three field goals of at least 40 yards in a C-USA title game, and his 14 kick points tied the C-USA Championship Game record. His four FGs were a C-USA game record, too.
"I told Haig ... the kicker gets the MVP of the game, I've never heard of that before," Holliday said with a grin. "He was special. He hadn't done that all year, but guess what, he did it when it mattered ... just another example of a senior on this football team playing his best football right now.
"That's the best game he's had since he's been here and to do it in a championship game means an awful lot."
Tech got plenty from running back Kenneth Dixon's 156 rushing yards and two touchdowns, but the Marshall defense took away Sokol's receivers and the graduate transfer QB from Iowa was only 7-of-20 for a paltry 72 yards. His pick to Hewitt - he led Marshall with 14 tackles and also mentored Huskey through the game -- was the last gasp for the visitors.
"We made an unusual call there," Heater said. "It's a blitz with hardly anybody covering underneath, but he's (Hewitt) one of the guys that is and they just didn't see him. It's not a call you would typically make in that situation.
"But we did and we just got lucky. He threw the ball to the guy he didn't see, didn't think he'd be there, but he was. It was weird.
"That running back (Dixon) is a great player, and we didn't exactly take him away. Their receivers, we did a great job. There were times when our coverage was tilted totally one way, away from `Swagg' (cornerback Darryl Roberts), and Swagg went 1-on-1 and did a phenomenal job. He won most of those battles. It might be overlooked by some, but Darryl Roberts holding up at the corner spot was huge for us."
Marshall forced 10 Tech punts - a title-game record - and limited the Bulldogs to 4-of-17 on third-down conversions. Tech went 0-for-6 on third down in the final half.
Offensively, Marshall had only 121 ground yards - its lowest rushing total in a victory since getting only 97 in a 38-28 triumph over Memphis in 2012 - but Cato had good enough protection (he was sacked twice and endured a career-high 14 hurries) against the constantly blitzing Bulldogs to go 25-of-46 for 308 yards and two scores. He was 16-of-26 in the second half.
"I told him after the game, he's got all these records and he's got everything that's happened here, but the one thing that was not on his resume was a championship," Holliday said of Cato. "And now, with him winning that championship, you can talk about him in the same breath as you do (Herd quarterback legends) Chad (Pennington) and Byron (Leftwich) because they did that.
"They got that done here. Now, he's done it. That kid has meant so much to this program. He's the quarterback who got it back to where it belonged, where it needs to be."
Cato's second-and-goal, 5-yard game-winner to McManus in the back of the end zone was more about protection than precision, and it ended an 11-play, 68-yard drive that took 3:11.
"The play was a quick slant," McManus said. "He's supposed to find me inside, but the defense played their part. I just never gave up on the play. I saw Cato scramble to the right, tried to get open and he saw me for the touchdown."
Cato said the Bulldogs "did a great job of covering the play. I just had to find time and use my feet. (McManus) made a great move and cut back and I delivered him a catchable ball. He made a great catch and that was the winning touchdown."
A week earlier, the Herd lost a game, a 12-game winning streak and a 13-game home winning streak. Getting a C-USA title to follow those in the WVIAC, Buckeye, Southern and MAC seemed a soothing salve on a soggy Saturday.
"I can't say enough how proud I am of the coaching staff, proud of the football team," Holliday said. "We overcame a lot of stuff out there. I've never been associated with a team that overcame so much adversity as we did in that game, and found a way to win at the end.
"It's a special bunch. I told them this morning before we got on the bus, that I had an opportunity to win a bunch of championships, titles, but I've never been as proud of a football team as I have this one. They've come so far.
"The culture is changed here at Marshall and as the head football coach, I'm just really excited to get this program back to where we wanted it - and that's to win championships for this fan base, this community, our school.
"The word `champions' is what it's all about."