Oct. 25, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Just one week before Halloween night, Marshall couldn’t find a way to leave Johnny “Red” Taylor Field with a treat.
The Herd went to Middle Tennessee allowing only 298 yards per game through the first half of the season. It left here having allowed twice that many in one long – nearly four hours – Thursday night.
A 51-49 loss to the Blue Raiders (4-4, 2-2) was a familiar feeling in a couple of different ways for the Thundering Herd (4-3, 2-1).
First, for the second straight game, things were do-or-die on the last play as the clock went to 0:00 – following a 24-23 Marshall win at FAU 12 nights earlier.
“We just came up short tonight,” said Herd senior tight end Gator Hoskins, who led MU’s receiving corps with seven catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. “It was a lot of back and forth. We went up in the fourth quarter, and we thought it was just like the last game, we pulled it out.
“They just made one more play than us, one more play.”
That play was a 9-yard scoring pass from Middle quarterback Logan Kilgore to Tavares Jefferson. And it came after the Herd had – for a second straight game – erased a 10-point deficit in the final minutes, this time to take a 49-45 lead on senior Essray Taliaferro’s 2-yard run with 2:29 left.
Taliaferro was a bright spot for the Herd, with a career-high 134 rushing yards.
Quarterback Rakeem Cato went 19-for-35 for 235 yards and three touchdowns, extending his consecutive games streak with a scoring pass to 25 – second nationally among active players and one game shy of former Herd great Chad Pennington, whose 26 straight came in every game of the 1997 and ’98 seasons.
“The offense did a lot for us,” said linebacker Evan McKelvey
, whose career-best 12 tackles topped the Herd. “We’ve just got to make plays when our name is called.
“We can’t really pin it on coaches, we can’t pin it on players. We’ve got to put it on the team. We made mistakes that cost us. Like I say, when our name is called and we’ve got a chance to make a play, we’ve got to make a play. If not, bad things happen.”
The way Middle’s offense rolled also reminded the Herd of last year, when a Marshall defense that was retooled this season by new coordinator Chuck Heater couldn’t get off the field.
Middle ran 100 plays. A Herd opponent hadn’t gotten that many since Army’s wishbone attack reached that many in a loss to MU in 1997 at West Point. That was Marshall’s second game after its return to major college football from Division I-AA.
Of the 585 yards for the Raiders, 308 came on the ground – the second-highest total for a C-USA opponent in Marshall’s eight-plus seasons in the league (Tulsa had 380 in 2011).
The Herd came here having allowed only 18.3 points per game (and two of the 14 touchdowns were via special teams punt blocks), and had the nation’s most improved scoring defense. Middle had six touchdowns, or half as many as the defense had permitted in six games.
“To be a great defense, we have to play hard every snap,” McKelvey said. “We can’t give up any big plays and we have to stop them on third down. Third down is what killed us.”
The Herd defense also was victimized by several drops of potential interceptions that were costly. Herd coach Doc Holliday said he thought a team that had only 47 missed tackles in six games had a high number in that statistic, too.
“I don’t know what the exact numbers were, but there’s no doubt we had more today than we’ve had,” Holliday said.
Special teams played a part in the loss – as it did in two earlier defeats at Ohio and Virginia Tech -- that kept the Herd from its first 3-0 start in its Conference USA history.
For a second time this season, Marshall had a punt block for a touchdown. Punter Tyler Williams also struggled on his first two short kicks, then on a low snap put his knee on the ground for a 14-yard team loss. Devon Smith fumbled away a punt return, but also had a 37-yard return that set up the Herd’s last score.
“Anytime you get a punt blocked, it’s ridiculous. It’s not acceptable,” Holliday said. “Two things on the punt team, the rest of them (special teams) I thought were very solid … That punt team … that should never happen. Those guys have got to do a better job, and we’ve got to do a better job coaching them.”
A bright spot for special teams was an 81-yard kick return by Deandre Reaves. It was the longest by Marshall since Troy Evans went 100 yards for a TD at Southern miss in 2010, and the longest Marshall non-scoring kick return since Curtis Jones brought one back 83 yards at Akron in 2000.
The Herd offense had a 448-yard night, but its issue went back to something coordinator Bill Legg talked about earlier in the week – first down performance, and consistency therein, making life easier on third down.
In the first half, Marshall gained only 42 yards on 22 first down attempts. In the second half, the numbers were much improved – 72 yards on 17 tries, but the 114 for 39 plays is 2.9 yards per play.
With the loss the Herd’s one-loss advantage over East Carolina in the C-USA East Division melted. Looking ahead, the Herd has two straight home dates against winless Southern Miss and rebuilding UAB (2-4, 1-1), and four games in succession (USM, UAB, Tulsa, FIU) against teams with a combined 5-19 record.
“We didn’t stop the run,” Holliday said. “We came in to try and stop the run and we didn’t do that. They were able to run the football … We go in there trying to stop the run and we didn’t and they were able to move the ball and there at the end they made a couple of plays throwing it.”
In one third-quarter stretch – a period in which the Blue Raiders kept the ball for more than 10 1/2 minutes – Middle ran 21 straight rushing plays.
“We come in at halftime, it’s evened up (21-21) and we trade back and forth,” Holliday said. “It’s disappointing we didn’t play well defensively. That’s been a strong point for us. We’ve got to get that right.
“We battled back and we tried to find a way to win it. Give them credit, they found a way to win it at the end, and we didn’t.”
Reaves was asked if the tough night reminded him of a year ago, when Marshall allowed 45 or more points in half of its 12 games and more than 550 yards four times in a frustrating 5-7 season.
“It’s tough, it’s real tough,” the Herd kick return man said. “It takes us back to a few games last year. We don’t like that feeling. We try to stay away from that.”