Nov. 24, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
MIAMI – On Black Friday in Huntington, W.Va., Marshall’s football team will go shopping.
The Thundering Herd has been waiting in line for a quite a while. On this coming holiday weekend, the program will play for a championship for the first time in 11 years.
In a high noon showdown for the Conference USA East Division title and conference championship date, Marshall (8-3, 6-1) will play host to East Carolina (9-2, 6-1) at Edwards Stadium in a Thanksgiving Friday kickoff (CBS Sports Network telecast).
It’s the weekend and the game the Herd knew it would have to get through all season to play for its first C-USA football championship and a Liberty Bowl berth.
It’s also Marshall’s first appearance in any title game since 2002, when the Herd downed Toledo, 49-45, at Edwards Stadium for the Mid-American Conference title.
“That was the goal,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said after his team’s fourth straight win. “That’s what this fan base wants, this community wants, this school wants. That’s what I came here to do. I really wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think we could play for championships.
“I think we’re right there, where we need to be, at this point, and now we’ve got to go do it. Again, we’re playing an excellent football team, a team I’ve got great respect for, and those have been two wild games the last two years (a pair of overtime games with ECU).
“Two evenly matched teams are going to go at it. It’s going to be a heck of an atmosphere and I’m looking forward to looking up there and seeing all that Kelly green in the stands. Let’s pack that house and let’s go play and see what happens, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The Herd (8-3, 6-1) set up a matchup for the division crown on here Saturday with a 48-10 victory at struggling FIU (1-10, 1-6), as quarterback Rakeem Cato threw four touchdown passes and Gator Hoskins – who leads FBS tight ends with TD catches for a second consecutive year – had three.
Marshall struggled early – FIU’s 3-0 lead was the first time this season it had led a game at the end of the first quarter – but the Herd finished with 558 total yards and allowed only 264 – or 96 fewer than the total defense average heading here. The Panthers also managed only 4-of-17 on third down conversions.
With the Herd roster stocked win Florida talent that was playing before a large contingent of family and friends, Holliday said his team got its focus on the game – and the upcoming task – with 20 second-quarter points.
“I thought No. 1, we came down here and did what we were supposed to do, played well in all three phases, didn’t turn the football over, which is critical,” the Herd coach said. “We took care of it for the most part … and 4-of-17 on third down conversions is great.”
Holliday was asked about the first series, when FIU – which has beaten only winless Southern Miss, 24-23 – took the lead. What changed?
“It’s your responsibility,” Holliday said of the sideline message sent. “Stay in your gaps, keep your eyes where they belong and tackle well. After that first drive when they got the field goal, they didn’t do a whole heck of a lot … I thought Chuck’s (Heater, defensive coordinator) guys did a tremendous job. Anytime you get off the field on third down the way they did, that’s critical.”
With three touchdowns on a six-catch, 137-yard night, Hoskins moved to 25 career TD receptions, passing Cody Slate, 23, from 2006-09) for the Marshall tight end record. In MU history, only Randy Moss (53), Darius Watts (47) and Mike Barber (26) have more TD catches.
Hoskins’ night – his 137 yards were the most for a Herd tight end since Slate had 177 on an 11-catch day in a home loss to Division I-AA New Hampshire in 2007 – came at a great time, too.
Already one of the eight semifinalists for the John Mackey Award that goes to the nation’s top tight end, the list gets pared to three finalists Monday.
The Herd senior’s stretching, one-handed grab for one of his receptions was as acrobatic as his crucial sideline tiptoe effort in the final, game-winning drive just up I-95 at FAU last month. He has become a safety’s bad nightmare and a linebacker’s worse nightmare.
“Some of it was just Gator coming to me, or me going to him … him telling me what was there and what was not there,” said Cato, who was 15-for-31 for 241 yards, four scores and no interceptions in the Herd’s second turnover-free game of the year. “He made big catches … the one-hand catch … He just made big plays all night. We needed that. (The one-hander) it was a beautiful catch, but he’s been doing that all year.”
Hoskins, a captain for the FIU game, said that as a senior – the ECU-Herd game will also be Marshall’s 2013 Senior Day – what’s ahead gave him fuel for his latest big game.
“It’s what we’ve all been talking about all year, every day,” Hoskins said of the Herd’s championship shot. “Since I’ve been here at Marshall, it’s the only thing we’ve talked about. Now, we’ve got a chance to go out and play in front of our home crowd. I know a lot of them will be there, so it’s time now.”
Hoskins wasn’t alone in having a night of significance at FIU Stadium.
Slot receiver Tommy Shuler, playing in his hometown, had six catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. The six receptions took Shuler to 80 for the season, making him the first player in Herd history to have a pair of 80-reception season. His 110 catches last season is the school record.
And when sophomore running back Kevin Grooms ran for 6 yards on a second-down play on the Herd’s second-last series, it took him to 503 season yards, giving Marshall a trio of 500-yard rushers for the first time since coach Jim Donnan’s final season in 1995.
The three for Holliday are Essray Taliaferro (845 yards), Stew Butler (661) and Grooms. The 1995 trio was Chris Parker, 1,833; Erik Thomas, 613; and Olandis Gary 501.
And although Butler’s 72-yard scoring run was an electric moment, none of those backs was the Marshall rushing leader on the night. Backup QB Blake Frohnapfel had 78 yards on four carries, including a 45-yard scoring run.
“That, the way Blake can run that option, gives us another dimension for a defense to think about right there,” Herd center Chris Jasperse said.
The Herd had no losses on run plays. The only negative ground yardage came on a 7-yard early sack of Cato.
And speaking of getting to the quarterback, Marshall’s seven sacks were the most for a Herd team in its nine C-USA seasons – or since getting eight in a 16-13 victory at Ohio in 2004. Marshall also had 14 tackles for losses, taking the season total to 88 – tied for fourth nationally.
So, now it’s time of the Herd to play a game that it has had circled in Kelly green on its calendar since a year ago, when a 65-59 loss at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium left Marshall with a 5-7 finish and kept Holliday’s third team from a Military Bowl bid.
That bowl’s president and executive director, Steve Beck, will be the Edwards Stadium pressbox on Friday for the last ECU-Herd meeting as Conference USA foes.
“These guys, you guys, everybody has been wanting to talk about next Friday for the last two weeks,” Holliday said after the win at FIU. “It was concerning for me as a football coach to come down here and everybody’s taking to these kids about the East Carolina game and Friday.
“And it’s the first time you’ve got the opportunity to still be in the championship hunt at this point in the season, 10 or 11 years, whatever it’s been, and finally they can talk about it. That’s what I told ‘em in the locker room.
“I said, ‘Guess what guys, ultimately, at the beginning of the year, this was your goal, at the end of the year to have the opportunity to go play for a championship. Here it is.’ We’ve got to do a great job of preparation.”
Jasperse said it more succinctly.
“Everybody’s been talking about it, we’ve been trying to wait down the road, one at a time but now it’s here,” The redshirt junior center said. “East Division championship, to get to the Conference USA championship, so it’s here. It’s real. It’s next.”
SEEN ‘N’ HERD: The win at FIU was the Herd’s sixth in C-USA play, the first time Marshall has had that many league wins in nine seasons since moving from the MAC. Holliday’s second MU team (2011) went 5-3 in the league and then won the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl over FIU, then a Sun Belt Conference member … Marshall has its first eight-win season since then-coach Bob Pruett’s 2003 club went 8-4 … The Herd got a fourth straight triumph for the first time since the 2004 team won five in a row (in a 6-6 season) …
Marshall is 4-0 in November. Marshall hadn’t won four games in the 11th month since 2001, when an 11-2 Herd team started 0-1 at No. 1 Florida, then won 10 straight before losing the Mid-American Conference title game at Toledo -- then topped ECU in double overtime in the GMAC Bowl to finish 11-2 … With wins in consecutive weeks at Tulsa and FIU, Marshall has back-to-back road victories for the first time since ’04, when Pruett’s team won at Ohio and Kent State on Oct. 9 and 16.
While Marshall will be bidding for its first C-USA title game appearance, East Carolina is trying to get back to the league title game for the first time since 2009, when the Pirates won their second straight crown … Even with UTSA’s win Saturday over North Texas making Rice the West Division front-runner, the chances for the Herd to host the Dec. 7 C-USA championship game may be problematical. If West-leading Rice falls Saturday at home against Tulane, then the ECU-Herd victor will get the title host role. However, if the Owls win, then both division champs have one league loss and the tiebreaker is the BCS standings. A win over ECU would boost Marshall there, but in Sunday’s rankings, Rice was No. 57, with the Herd falling to No. 70 (strength of schedule a factor) after facing four straight weeks of lowly teams. ECU is No. 38 … Marshall’s task against ECU will be much tougher than what the Herd has faced in recent weeks. The last four Herd foes are a combined 6-38 (Southern Miss, UAB, Tulsa, FIU). ECU’s only losses were 36-33 in overtime to Tulane at the Superdome, and a 15-10 loss at home to Virginia Tech, which tripped the Herd in three OTs at Lane Stadium one week later …
Herd sophomore punter Tyler Williams had his best game of the season. Of his six punts, four went more than 50 yards and another 49. His four over 50 were a first in his two MU seasons … Butler has six rushes of 40 or more yards this season, trailing only Tevin Coleman of Indiana and Andre Williams of Boston College (eight apiece) … Cato’s 15-yard TD pass to Hoskins early in the third quarter was the junior quarterback’s 52nd red zone TD pass in his career, with only one interception (at Tulsa on Nov. 14) … Marshall ranks ninth in FBS in third down conversions (51.8 percent) and the MU defense is 18th in third down stops, at 32.8 percent … The Herd is No. 8 nationally in long scrimmage plays (10 or more yards, with 209).