Nov. 15, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
TULSA, Okla. – It was a night to remember in what’s becoming a November to remember.
Marshall surely didn’t make it easy – but it made it – on one of the most special occasions in Thundering Herd football history.
Wearing helmets with a large “75” decal to remember and honor those who died in the MU football team plane crash on the same date 43 years earlier, coach Doc Holliday’s team outlasted host Tulsa, 45-34, despite five turnovers and a 21-0 lead after fewer than 10 minutes at Skelly Field.
The emotion of this Thursday – like the crucial Conference USA game for the Herd – wasn’t lost.
It was Marshall’s first road game on a Nov. 14 since the 1970 plane crash and a pregame moment of silence marked the occasion.
And 7 1/2 hours before kickoff, the 67 Herd players on the travel squad, with coaches, quietly and respectfully gathered in a piece of a Southern Hills Marriott ballroom to watch a web-based Marshall telecast of the annual Memorial Fountain ceremony some 850 miles away back on a campus that will never forget.
The Herd (7-3, 5-1) took that emotion into the game, but once the turnovers began, Marshall seemed caught in a real hurricane, and not just the brisk stadium winds and a Golden Hurricane (2-8, 1-5) that was looking for anything good to happen in a long season.
“That game described Marshall in the fullest,” Herd senior offensive tackle Garrett Scott said. “The struggle, the determination at the end. We had to fight back.
“We shouldn’t have made it as close as we did, the way we came out (a 21-0 lead after 9:39), with all of the emotion of the day. But we battled.
“It was like the school after the plane crash. It wasn’t going to just give up and we weren’t going to give up.”
Holliday said he wondered how his team would deal with this unique Nov. 14.
“This has been kind of a special, different deal, the first time in the history of the school we had the opportunity to play (on the road) on that special date, with the 75 on our helmets,” Holliday said. “Our kids, one thing I was concerned about going into that game was how they would come out.
“They were an emotional bunch, to be honest with you. And it was important to these guys that we gave that fan base, that community, that university something to smile about at the end of the day. That was critical to this team.”
And after Tulsa took a 34-31 lead, with 12:27 to go, the Herd defense turned in back-to-back three-and-outs, a huge Ra’Shawde Myers sack and an interception from freshman safety Tiquan Lang. The game – at that point so much like one last month at FAU that required a 10-point comeback for the Herd to win – was in the capable hands of quarterback Rakeem Cato.
The junior from Miami didn’t disappoint. On a night where his numbers reminded many of last season when his arm was producing an overload of offense, Cato guided the Herd to a pair of TDs in the final 3:47, as he threw for five scores for the fifth time in his career.
His 456 yards were a career high.
“It was hard,” Cato said of trying to sustain the all-day emotion. “We just couldn’t get it going because we kept turning it over. We’ve got to work on that.
“But I felt like if we could just keep the ball, we could come back because they weren’t stopping us; we were stopping us.
“On that sideline, it felt like all those 75 people (who died in the plane crash) were there with us. We weren’t going to lose the game for them, for Marshall University.”
Cato was right about the Golden Hurricane not stopping the Herd. Marshall had 619 yards total offense on 103 plays, only the second time in school history a 600-plus has been produced for a third consecutive game (2001).
But Marshall’s five turnovers were its most since it had a 6-0 giveaway deficit in a 23-22 win at Memphis two years ago.
"It was ugly at times," Holliday said. "But you know what? At the end of the day, our guys found a way to get it done. We won the football game, and I've got a feeling there's 75 people up there that are kind of smiling, looking down right now. And that's a heck of a deal.”
Holliday often talks about the importance of playing well in November. His four Herd teams have a late-season record – let’s call it a “falling leaves” mark (after Oct. 28) – of an impressive 13-4.
Next, the Herd goes to FIU (1-8, 1-4) next Saturday night, seeking an unprecedented sixth win in a C-USA season. The Herd’s only winning season in its previous eight in C-USA play was a 5-3 finish in the 2011 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl year of 2011.
Holliday’s team continues pointing toward a C-USA East Division title showdown with East Carolina (7-2, 5-1) on Thanksgiving Friday afternoon at Edwards Stadium.
“It was hard because we had people texting us all day and hitting us on Facebook telling us to just go out there and win it for the (75 crash victims),” said Herd receiver Tommy Shuler, who had a game-leading nine catches, with the first and then the late go-ahead touchdown. “We had a lot of pressure on our chest, but we went out there and did it.”
The Herd also reflected on how things might have unraveled in Tulsa.
“It seems that on the road, we always make it harder than it has to be,” said MU linebacker Evan McKelvey, who led Marshall with 12 tackles. “Today was a big day for us, and a lot of things, everything that could have gone wrong out here went wrong for a while.
“But the offense kept its head and the defense kept its head. We just wanted to get this right as a tribute to those 75 people who went down in the plane crash. And we did.”
Tulsa running back Trey Watts knifed through the Herd for 169 yards and two touchdowns, and McKelvey called him the best back in C-USA. The linebacker also agreed with Holliday that after a second straight game of running success for an opponent, the Herd needs to tighten that part of its game.
“Those were some of the best backs we’ve seen (for UAB and Tulsa),” McKelvey said. “It doesn’t matter. We can’t allow people to run on us like that. Other teams see that, and they’ll come out and try it on us.”
That aside, Marshall’s defense wasn’t the Herd issue. It allowed 345 yards – 14 under its average for the season – and the Golden Hurricane was stopped to the tune of 3-for-17 on third down conversions.
Offensively, the Herd didn’t run up to its recent standards, and four fumbles could have been a bigger story than they were after Cato’s tipped pass became a Shawn Jackson interception as the Herd was primed for a 28-0 lead and the Herd had 244 first-period yards, its high for a quarter this season.
It was the first pick of Cato in the red zone in his career after 49 scoring passes inside the 20. However, it started things in the wrong direction for the Herd.
“That was critical,” Holliday said of the TU interception. “If you score there, you go up 28 and I think they took it down and scored.”
Tulsa got 14 points before halftime, but the Herd looked OK as it went into halftime with a 17-point cushion. By the finish, it took Cato’s 33-of-58 night for 456 yards – to seven receivers, including a game-leading nine by Shuler, with a pair of touchdowns – to seal the win.
The Herd finally got matters under control again with about five minutes left, following a short Tulsa punt and 10-yard return by Deandre Reaves. A 19-yard completion to Shuler over the middle and then a Cato touch lob toward the sideline and goal line’s intersection for an 18-yard score by Shuler gave MU the lead again, 38-34, with 3:47 left.
“These kids, they’re resilient and they fight, they hang together and they don’t quit, they keep playing hard and eventually it went our way,” Holliday said.
“It’s very big; it’s more than a win to me,” Cato said when asked about the significance of the victory on this anniversary of the worst air tragedy to hit U.S. sports. “At the end, we just looked up in the sky and knew that all 75 people are looking down smiling at us.
“We just wanted to do it all for them, no matter what the stats (said). We just wanted to do it for them and make sure we come out of this game with the win.”
SEEN AND HERD: With 636 (Southern Miss), 657 (UAB) and 619 (Tulsa) yards total offense in the last three games, Marshall has matched its three-for-600 run in 2001, when quarterback Byron Leftwich led MU to wins over Central Michigan (647 yards), Akron (726) and Kent State (605) … Marshall’s 103 snaps rank fourth in Herd history. The record is 108 for a 1987 win over Western Carolina … At FIU, the Herd will be trying to win consecutive road games (no home dates in between) for the first time in its C-USA years. The last back-to-back road wins in two weeks were at Ohio and at Kent State, on Oct. 9 and 16 in 2004, the final Mid-American conference season … Cato’s 5 TDs extended his Herd-record streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 28, trailing Derek Carr of Fresno State by one. Carr plays next on Nov. 23 at New Mexico, while Cato visits his hometown to face FIU … A PAT block by Darryl “Swag” Roberts early in the third quarter was Marshall’s second block this season, and 19th in Holliday’s four years guiding the Herd. Defensive lineman James Rouse blocked a Virginia Tech field goal in overtime in the Sept. 21 MU loss … Shuler’s nine catches for 105 yards and two scores continue to push him forward in Herd receiving annals. His 198 career receptions put him one behind tight end Cody Slate (2006-09) for No. 6 on the all-time list, and his 14 TDs tie him with John “Fuzzy” Filliez for 18th place. Shuler has 2,058 career yards, the 13th 2,000-yard receiver in Herd history. Shuler had 74 catches this season, a tie with Tim Martin (1996) and Lavorn Colclough (’97) for 13th in single-season receptions. Shuler’s 110 last season is the record … Tight end Gator Hoskins had two more TD catches in the win, taking him to 22 for his career, tying Jim Swierczek (1951-53) for ninth place. The senior from Gainesville, Fla., is one catch shy of Slate’s school record for tight ends, 23 … Marshall heads to FIU with running back Kevin Grooms needing 52 rushing yards to give the Herd three 500-yard rushers for the first time since 1995, coach Jim Donnan’s last season. In that year, Chris Parker had 1,833, Erik Thomas 613 and Olandis Gary 501. This season, Essray Taliaferro is at 796, Steward Butler has 585 and Grooms 448.