MT. PLEASANT, Mich. – Marshall appeared to be in cruise control early on Saturday, taking a 20-0 lead over Central Michigan at Kelly/Shorts Stadium as easily as a walk in the park.
The home standing Chippewas, however, did not crumble under the pressure of the early deficit and very nearly turned their home field into a house of horrors for Marshall, as the Herd held on for a 23-18 victory.
It was not until Derrick Vickers’ fourth down pass attempt fell incomplete with less than a minute to play that the Herd sideline let out a collective sigh of relief. Marshall improved to 6-1 overall with the victory and, more importantly, to 4-0 in the race for the Mid-American Conference East Division title.
CMU fell to 3-5 overall and 1-3 in the MAC West.
“You have to give Central Michigan a lot of credit for hanging in there,” Herd coach Bob Pruett said. “They played hard and with a lot of energy and didn’t fold when we got them down 20-0.”
Marshall moved the ball easily in the early going behind the passing of senior quarterback, and Heisman Trophy candidate, Byron Leftwich. The Herd scored on its’ first four possessions, twice on Curtis Head field goals and twice on Leftwich passes.
“Our red zone offense was poor,” Pruett said. “When you get down in there you can’t kick field goals, you have to score touchdowns. You can’t drop the ball, you can’t have penalties and you can’t turn the ball over, and those are the things that we did.”
Marshall’s opening drive stalled at the CMU 24, leading to a 40-yard Head field goal. After stopping the Chippewas on fourth down at the Marshall 34, Leftwich led the Herd on a season-long 14-play drive. That possession, however, also stalled short of the end zone, and resulted in a 35-yard field goal.
After another solid defensive stand, the Marshall quick-strike offense finally struck. Leftwich, who became just the 20th player in NCAA Division I-A history to surpass the 10,000-yard mark for career passing, hooked up with junior Darius Watts on a picture-perfect 58-yard touchdown strike.
“We were moving the ball on those guys early on, but the penalties killed us,” Leftwich said. “It is not just that we are getting penalties, it is when we are getting them. It has been happening to us on both sides of the ball and we just have to figure out a way to stop doing it.”
Marshall was flagged 11 times in the game for 77 yards and, more often than not, the flags put the Herd into second or third and long situations.
“We were in so many third and longs because of the penalties that it was unreal,” Leftwich said. “We have to figure out a way to stay out of those situations. We just haven’t been catching any breaks. The calls haven’t gone our way.”
Leftwich made his own breaks early on, stretching the Marshall lead to 20-0 early in the second quarter with an eight-yard TD pass to Denero Marriott. During Marshall’s two touchdown drives Leftwich completed 10 consecutive passes.
After going up 20-0, the momentum of the game seemed to switch to the Central Michigan side. The Chippewas started running the ball well on offense, and playing with more aggressiveness on defense. The Herd, at times, appeared to be going through the motions.
“We came out today like it was a practice instead of a game,” Pruett said. “That is not to demean CMU. We usually play with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement, but we didn’t do that today. The only time we got excited was when the game ended.”
CMU cut the Marshall lead to 20-6 with an eight-play drive that was capped by a one-yard Terrence Jackson run. The TD was set up by a 40-yard Jackson run three plays earlier.
A field goal just before halftime cut the Marshall lead to 20-9, and another early in the third quarter got the Chippewas within a touchdown at 20-12.
Marshall answered with a quick drive inside the CMU 10, but the Herd failed to punch in the opportunity and had to settle for a third Head field goal. It was the first time the senior has connected on three field goals in a game.
From there Marshall was it’s own worst enemy, with penalties and bad breaks thwarting scoring chances at every turn. The Chippewas took advantage of the Herd’s struggles and, with 5:15 left Jackson scored again to cut the deficit to 23-15.
After a Leftwich pass was batted up and intercepted, CMU had a chance to pull off the upset, but the Marshall defense rose to the occasion. After moving the ball into Marshall territory, Vickers threw consecutive incomplete passes before Marcus Hairston’s sack put the Chippewas into a fourth and 20. When Vickers’ pass fell incomplete, the Herd had the win.
“This is the worst we have played all year, but we still found a way to win,” Leftwich said. “That is all that matters. If we can play that bad and still win, that is good.”
Marshall Game Notes – October 26 at Central Michigan