Oct. 19, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – As Marshall heads into the second half of the football regular season, coach Doc Holliday says he has a different team.
The fourth-year coach says the Thundering Herd was steeled by its 24-23 victory last Saturday at Florida Atlantic. It was a game in which the Herd played anything but its best, but one that – in the urgency wrapped around a nine-point deficit with 10 minutes to play – brought out an emotional team hug, too.
Marshall (4-2, 2-0) goes to Middle Tennessee (3-4, 1-2) for a Thursday prime-time national telecast game (Fox Sports 1). With a victory, the Herd will be at least 5-2 for the first time since 2002, when the GMAC Bowl-bound, Mid-American Conference champs started 6-1 (with the loss at No. 7 Virginia Tech).
After East Carolina lost in triple overtime at Tulane less than an hour before the Herd’s stirring win, Marshall, with a renovated defense that’s drawn national attention, controls its own destiny now in the Conference USA East Division race. Here’s a fact that shows the improvement:
The Herd, through six games, has allowed 1,789 yards total offense to opponents (298.2 per game). The last time Marshall was that good in total defense through six games was the 1999 club that finished 13-0 and ranked No. 10 nationally. That Bob Pruett-coached Herd allowed 1,776 yards (296.0) through six dates.
But sometimes, statistics don’t tell the story. The last 10 minutes in Boca Raton, Fla., tell it much better, in this case.
"From a confidence standpoint, that's the first time since I've been here (that the Herd has won in such a fashion)," Holliday said. "When that offense took that ball over on that first drive (trailing 23-14) that we had to go down and score, the entire defense and everybody was out there when they went on the field.
“And when the defense was out there, the offense was up there on the field with the defense, trying to get it done. The third drive (ending with Justin Haig’s win-or-lose field goal try from 41 yards), the entire team was out there as the offense took the field.
“So, leadership on the sidelines and in the locker room, the things we've been talking around here for a long time, looks like it's starting to take effect, and we won the game because of it.
“I don’t really enjoy winning games like that, but it is better than the alternative. I think you can grow as a football team when you find a way to win one like that. It’s been a while since we’ve done that around here.”
Defensive end Alex Bazzie is playing as a postgraduate student, and he’s glad his final season of eligibility included such a special night.
“In all my years at Marshall, all the games I've experienced, it was the first game where we won in that fashion – and it was the first time I think you saw a real ‘team,’” said Bazzie, who was hugging center Chris Jasperse after the triumph. “The defense, we somehow found a way to give the offense a chance. The offense found a way to give special teams the chance. The special teams found a way to satisfy the whole team.
“How often does that happen?”
Redshirt junior center Jasperse, a game captain for the Herd’s fourth straight outing at FAU, was in the middle of it all.
“When you get in that situation you can’t freak out and try to do something spectacular, something special, just do what you’ve been doing all of the time,” Jasperse said. “In our offense, we go fast, and if we need to score in two minutes, we can do that and we know that. Gator (Hoskins, tight end) made a nice play there and (scored a touchdown) and we got off the field.
“And the defense got a stop and all we had to do was get into field goal range and (quarterback Rakeem) Cato made a nice run, and ‘MooMoo’ (Devon Smith) caught the pass down the field and we decided to set up the field goal, and it worked out.
“In that situation, you can’t do anything crazy. You’ve just got to make plays you haven’t made earlier in the game, just have to have somebody come out there and make a play.”
Cato was in control leading the final drive with no timeouts left. Hoskins made two great plays on the final two drives. Smith’s stop-jump catch was remarkable, especially since he’s not even as tall as Haig, who’s 5-foot-7.
"We were just out there sticking with each other, believing and trusting in ourselves that we could do that," Cato said. "Not one time in the game did anyone put their heads down. No fingers were getting pointed.
“We did what’s best for our team. We grew a lot. We're just growing with each other in every game and getting after it as hard as we can.”
The defense stopped FAU when it counted, and tackle James Rouse’s last-drive plays were instrumental.
“We were able to get a stop on that last drive,” Holliday said. “We just have to keep playing those guys and we did not play our best game defensively, but at the end of the day they found a way to get a stop to give our offense a chance to go win the game.
“Our offense had nowhere near its best performance, but they all found a way. I think that’s the important thing at the end of the day. You find a way to win, but we want to play better and we have to play better. We have to get better in all three phases. Again, the special teams, as mentioned before was the strength of the team. We just have to continue to feed off of each other and get better. I think we’ll do that.”
Holliday – asked about having the division lead midway through the season -- said the Herd knows what it has to do … but he said knowing it and doing it aren’t the same thing.
“They can take one look at it and don’t have to be very smart to know we are right where we want to be,” Holliday said. “We said all along that all of our goals and dreams are in place. They are. We are sitting right where we want to be sitting at this point. We control our own destiny.
“That being said you don’t look ahead five or six weeks down the road. You look ahead to next Thursday because that is the only one that matters at this point, preparing for Middle Tennessee.
“Kids are kids and they have dreams and goals and they know they’re all still out there. We control that. We have to make sure we get better every day in practice and go play our best game a week from Thursday to try to keep those goals and dreams in place.”