Oct. 14, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
BOCA RATON, Fla. - Gator ... MooMoo ... What is this...a trip to Marshall's football zoo?
No, it's a rewind to the Thundering Herd's stirring 24-23 triumph Saturday night at Florida Atlantic, which left Coach Doc Holliday's team alone at the top of the Conference USA East Division and one of only three teams (with Rice and Tulane) unbeaten in league play.
Without the late efforts of tight end Harold "Gator" Hoskins and wide receiver Devon "MooMoo" Smith, the Herd (4-2, 2-0) would have been heading toward an Oct. 24 visit to Middle Tennessee (1-2, 2-4) for a Thursday night Fox Sports 1 national telecast trying to regroup.
Hoskins, a senior from Gainesville, had two catches in the game - and two of the three biggest. Smith, a 5-foot-7 Penn State transfer and also a senior, had the other one of those.
Justin Haig's game-winning, last-play, 41-yard field goal would have been only a dream without the performances of Hoskins and Smith, who strength and conditioning coach Scott Sinclair says is the Herd's fastest player.
No one on the FAU roster would likely debate that.
His 77-yard punt return for a touchdown put Marshall on the scoreboard early in the second quarter. It was the eight-longest punt return in Herd history ... but his leaping, falling-backwards 35-yard reception on the game's final drive was even bigger - his 20th catch of the season.
Hoskins, who has 12 catches for 210 yards and five scores this season, had only two receptions in the game. But both were offensive lineman-sized huge.
The veteran tight end made a 41-yard catch-run from quarterback Rakeem Cato with 6:47 left to pull Marshall within two at 23-21.
Then, on a first-and-10 play as the Herd was trying to drive from its own 9 into field goal range, Hoskins made one of those en pointe ballet moves - that's on the toes - just inbounds to keep Marshall moving with a 9-yard reception.
Simply put, without those plays, the Herd has a very long flight home and a very long time to stew before a game at Middle 12 night later.
"Gator, what a great play, the run after the catch (to a touchdown) was tremendous," Holliday said. "MooMoo, I don't know what his stats were but he made tremendous plays for us. That (last-dive catch) won the game for us. He's about (5-7) but somehow, he came up with it. He's just a football player. He's getting better and better, he's getting more confident."
Smith's 77-yard punt return for a score came a week after he had 29- and 26-yard runbacks in a win over UTSA. In other words, with punt return team (and linebackers) coach Adam Fuller, Smith is figuring it out.
"It was wide open," Smith said of the return, the Herd's first for a score since Andre Snipes-Booker went 87 yards in a loss at West Virginia in 2011. "I had speed with it, but it was wide open..I made two guys miss, and that's just what I do.
"A lot of it is watching film, working hard, just looking to see what I can do ... I'm doing a lot of studying, and that studying paid off for me to get my first punt return (touchdown) ... I'm studying film, seeing how the blocks go, watch how our guys block, stuff like that."
Cato called Smith's efforts special.
"I trust him," the Herd junior quarterback said. "As long as he's on the field, I trust him. The sad point is he's not 100 percent (healthy). He made a great play, both times, the catch and the punt return, so he played a heck of a game."
Hoskins said he had about 25 family members and friends in the FAU Stadium crowd of 19,760, which included a significant Marshall presence. One of those was his mother - who got her verbally expressed wish when the senior got his 18th career TD catch.
"I'd say the touchdown was bigger (than his sideline tiptoe catch), because we needed to score really fast there," Hoskins said. "Cato just gave me a good ball and I made a great play ... My mom was out there behind us screaming, `I want a touchdown; I want a touchdown.' Hopefully, I made my friends and family proud of me."
Hoskins' 18th career TD catch put him in a tie for 10th place in Herd history with Nate Poole (1997-2000), LaVorn Colclough (1995-97) and former teammate Antavious Wilson (2009-12), a Floridian who was in attendance.
"I don't think anybody ran with me across the middle," Hoskins said. "I don't know what they were trying to do, but hey, I'm open and (Cato) finds me.
Among tight ends, only Cody Slate (23 from 2006-09) had more TD receptions in an MU career than Hoskins.
As for Smith, the Marylander by way of the late coach Joe Paterno's program is becoming more of a threat as the weeks go by, whether it's at outside (X) receiver or in returning punts. His 35-yard, final-drive catch in a feet-off-the-ground tussle with 5-11, 175-pound corner Cre'von Leblanc put the Herd within Haig's FG distance.
"I knew I was going to catch it," a confident Smith said. "It's a do-or-die situation. I want to be the guy to help my team, not be the guy who didn't help my team ... I want to be the guy that they look at me and say, `Good play.' It's my last year, I've got to act like a senior. I've got to lead.
"I've got to believe in my team. I hope everybody believes in me and believes in the team. It's a team thing, nobody thinks we're going to lose, you've got to keep playing. You go through adversity all game, all of the time, so you've just got to push through it."
Asked how he made the catch - giving up about 5 inches and 20 pounds - Smith sort of shrugged after revealing Cato had told him he'd be throwing at the back shoulder, between Smith and the sideline.
The Herd QB - he became the fourth Herd passer to throw for 1,500 yards here straight seasons - joining Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich and Michael Payton - wasn't quite on target.
"I saw the pass was kind of short," Smith said. "So I knew at the last minute, 'OK, he'll overplay, so let me slide on by and I'll jump up and get the ball before he can even turn his head.' And that's what I did.
"It's crazy (he said of his height and football success)...I know a lot of people don't expect me to be the type of kid to help win the game by going up for the ball like that, but like I say, I've got heart. I just want to help my team win."
Like fourth-year coach Holliday said after the win, "For three years we didn't find a way to do that. I was really proud of the way they hung in there, they fought, scratched, found a way to win the game. You know, any time you go on the road and win a conference game, it's huge ... We'll be a lot better football team because of what happened out there today."
Asked if this were an indication of how a good team can find a way to win even on a day when it struggles, Holliday said, "Absolutely". Hoskins agreed.
"We're good," the senior tight end said. "I don't want us to get the big head right now. We just made one more play. We preach that all the time in practice.
"If it comes down to it, make one more play. We always preach, make one more play. That's what we did, and we needed it."