Sept. 23, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HOUSTON - Most college football teams no longer list "TB" on their rosters for the primary running back spot.
Maybe Marshall should ... as in tri-back, not tailback.
In Saturday's 54-51 double overtime Conference USA victory at Rice, the Thundering Herd got maximum mileage from three redshirt freshman rushers from Florida, and Marshall's ground game flourished like it hasn't in a game in almost a decade.
Yet, when asked after finally escaping Rice Stadium, one of those backs said maybe a game ball of sorts should have been rewarded to one of their former running mates.
It was Travon Van, the erstwhile running back starter who moved to backup cornerback at Coach Doc Holliday's early-week request because the Herd had a need there ... and virtually clearing the way for Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler and Remi Watson to make more mayhem for the Owls.
"He did that to make the team better," Butler said after rushing for a game-high 166 yards, as the Herd (2-2, 1-0) escaped for its first victory in history in Texas - after losing a 10-point lead in the last four minutes of regulation. "When you see something like that, it makes you want to work that much harder.
"Travon made a big sacrifice. He went from a starter to non-starter, so I thank Travon for that, I really do."
Watson got the start, and the trio of freshmen combined for 334 yards, after getting only 376 combined in the first three 2012 games. The 334 on the ground are the most for a Herd team since Nov. 1, 2003, when Marshall ran for 374 in a 42-24 win over Akron at Edwards Stadium.
It also was the most rush yards in a road game for the Herd since Sept. 17, 1983, when Sonny Randle-coached Marshall ran 58 times for 336 yards in a 35-0 victory at Morehead State.
Grooms added 103 yards and Watson 84. The trio also had no negative-yardage plays, no turnovers and combined for nine rushes of 10 or more yards ... and seven touchdowns, six on the ground, including 57- (Butler) and 45-yarders (Grooms).
Grooms' four TDs are the most for a Marshall player since future NFLer Ahmad Bradshaw scored five touchdowns against UTEP in a 2006 Edwards Stadium game.
The threesome got the Marshall major-college record for freshman touchdowns in a game, but not quite the school record. When the Herd won 59-14 at home on Nov. 30, 1996 over Delaware in a Division I-AA playoff first-round game, freshman scored eight TDs - three each by Randy Moss and Doug Chapman, and one apiece by Llow Turner and Jason Balwanz.
It was wild enough without that record. The longest Herd game since the memorable 2001 GMAC Bowl double overtime win over East Carolina featured 182 plays, with no interceptions and no lost fumbles. The NCAA major college record game record for total plays without a TO is 184, set in 1968 by Arkansas (93) and Texas A&M (91), in a 25-22 Razorbacks' win.
"I was just like, `Wow!' what's going on out there?" Grooms said. "I didn't know what was going on. I just knew that when it was our turn, we had to make a play."
A week earlier, the Herd ran for only 59 yards in a 27-24 home loss to Ohio. Grooms was on the field for only one snap - and it didn't count because a penalty wiped out the play - so he was a bit determined to make up for lost time ... and now the Herd goes to Purdue on Saturday feeling much better about itself, too.
"Last week made me feel like I just had to prove a lot," said the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder who owns the team's fastest 40-yard time (4.29 -- .02 faster than Butler). "I didn't feel like standing on the sideline, knowing I could make plays to help me team win. When they gave me the opportunity, I had to take it on my shoulders and do what I could do.
"If they got me the ball, I feel like I could make plays. It's like Coach Holliday always says, `When your number is called, go make a play.' That's what Stew does, that's what Remi does, what I do, our O-line does, receivers, quarterback, everybody."
Grooms and his two running back mates made plenty of big plays, and while he scored the winning touchdown with a 5-yard burrow effort into the teeth of the Owl defense that came into the game allowing 290 ground yards per game, it wasn't that play or his 45-yard scoring run he thought most important.
"The (fourth-quarter) third-and-8," Grooms said when asked to recount his own "big" play. "I picked up the first down to keep the chains moving and then we went down and scored."
He got 11 yards from the Herd 29 with Marshall ahead 35-31 ... and woozy from a solid hit from Rice cornerback Alex Francis.
"I was dizzy," Grooms said, "and they (teammates) called `hurt,' and then so I was like, `no, no' and (quarterback Rakeem) Cato gave me another play (a 3-yard run), and then they got another running back in there."
Butler followed, then Watson, and the Herd went 73 yards in 15 plays, using 5:06 on the clock - significant on a muggy, warm afternoon and evening.
"It helps because everybody's in condition, and when you've got three everybody can go in fresh," Butler said. "We weren't playing that much (the three freshmen) and we knew it could make a difference if we played that much. I didn't think it would change it as much as it did though. We did well, really good.
"We knew it was our time. The coaches told us they were moving Travon because he was needed, and it would get us more carries."
Cato, who with his receivers had been the offensive show in the Herd's first three games, appreciated the contributions of the underclassmen lined up behind and aside him.
"Great," Cato said. "They came out and showed up. They did what the coaches asked them to do, great effort, no turnovers, ran the ball hard. Every time they got in I told them, `Hold the ball, just hold the ball.' They did ... I felt comfortable on every call we made. The run game ... We just kept at it."
Butler's 166 rushing yards were the most for Marshall since Darius Marshall tore through Memphis for 203 in a September 2009 win at the Liberty Bowl.
Grooms, Butler, Watson and Holliday were unanimous in their praise for another part of their success, too - what's up front. On an 87-play afternoon, the Herd offensive line kept carving up the Owls' defensive front.
"For Stew, Grooms and me, all of the praise goes to our offensive line," said Watson, who set up the game-winning Grooms score with a first-down, 20-yard burst in the second OT. "We had been here before (winning over ECU in overtime last November), and we knew how to win the game once we got to overtime.
"The defense held them to the field goal, and our offensive line just played really hard all game, especially in overtime."
Yes, the Herd used its rookie backs to go one better than the Texas two-step.