BOGACZYK: MVP Haig Gives Herd Real Kick
The Word on the Herd-Dec. 7, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Next weekend, Justin Haig will earn his second academic degree from Marshall, in marketing. The Marshall place-kicker already had graduated with a management degree last December.
On Saturday, Haig passed with flying colors, too. The Delray Beach, Fla., native who has been Marshall’s principal place-kicker for three seasons saved his best for his last game at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, sending his 12-1 team into a bowl game for the third time in four years.
In the Herd’s white-knuckler of a 26-23 victory over visiting Louisiana Tech in the soggy Conference USA Championship Game, Haig tied a C-USA title game record with 14 points … but that really doesn’t capture his day.
The 5-foot-8, 176-pound, fifth-year senior was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. (Yes, I voted for him.) His four field goals – from 40, 46, 40 and 24 yards – were a title-game record. He became the first kicker in 10 C-USA Championship Games to make three kicks from 40 or more yards.
There’s more, but how did Herd Coach Doc Holliday – he gave Haig a scholarship in a first Marshall recruiting class in 2010 – see it?
"I told Haig … the kicker gets the MVP of the game, I’ve never heard of that before," Holliday said in a happy postgame interview session. "He was special. He hadn’t done that all year, but guess what? He did it when it mattered … just another example of a senior on this football team playing his best football right now.
"That’s the best game he’s had since he’s been here and to do it in a championship game means an awful lot."
Haig hadn’t attempted a kick of more than 39 yards – a miss in a September "Battle for the Bell" romp past Ohio – this season. He was 3-for-3 beyond that distance in the title game. His 46-yarder was not only the longest in C-USA Championship history … it was his career longest, too – and it flew over the same south end zone goalpost that overjoyed Herd fans tore down at the game’s end.
And it came on the last play of the half, cutting the Bulldogs’ lead to 17-13 … and it came after Tech Coach Skip Holtz tried to ice Haig by calling timeout just as the ball was snapped by Matt Cincotta to holder Tyler Williams.
Haig missed that waved-off one, then converted when it counted as the clock went to 0:00. And he already – wet uniform and all – felt like he was freezing anyway.
"I mean, I heard the whistle, so I followed through anyway," Haig said. "I just wanted to get my leg loose because it was cold out, and every extra practice I can get, it’s great to keep loose … So, I just went and whipped (his right leg) and kicked it as hard as I could and then I focused, focused in … a practice shot."
Haig became the first Marshall kicker with four field goals in a game since Billy Malashevich went 4-for-4 in a 32-14 victory at Miami (Ohio) in 1999 – the Herd’s first win in Oxford in 60 years.
"That means a lot," Haig said when told of the last 4-for-4. "It means even more because we won a championship. If I went 4-for-4 and we lose, it doesn’t do anything for me."
Here’s a guy who – as a senior – had to win the job he’d had for two seasons with a solid preseason camp in August. The doubts on Haig have been related to leg strength. However, after his three boots of 40 or more Saturday, he’s 9-of-11 in his career from 40-49 yards.
Haig doesn’t get as many three-point opportunities as some other kickers, either. Marshall entered major-college football’s "Championship Weekend" with an FBS-leading 75 touchdowns.
"Today, he was special," said Todd Hartley, the Herd’s special teams coach who works with the kickers. "It’s clutch. The guy has a lot of resolve. On a day when things weren’t always going well, he found a way to stick it through the posts. When the team needed points, he got them.
"It’s like Doc says: ‘When your number is called, go make a play.’ Haig made more than one. He’s tough. The competition for the job before the season, he wasn’t going to give it up. He kept us in the game so we could win in the end."
Haig has hit two game-winners in his career – a final-play, 41-yarder in his south Florida backyard last season at FAU, and his previous-long 45-yarder at 0:07 to topple Houston at "The Joan" in November 2012.
But on a day like this, in a game so crucial? This was a first … not to mention Haig’s 14 points left him with 336 for his career, one behind the Marshall kick-points record of 337 set by Tim Openlander from 1994-96. Haig passed Dewey Klein’s 330 points (1988-91) with his second 40-yarder, early in the third quarter.
Haig is 16-of-20 on field goals this season, and 70-of-70 on extra points. He takes a 95-PAT streak into the Herd’s bowl – to be announced Sunday afternoon – after making 102 in a row before a 2013 miss at Southern Miss.
"I just go out there and try to make my kicks all the time," Haig said. "I think it’s a unique situation. You can’t compare it to any other position on the football field. It’s more like golf, if you’re going to compare it to anything. I went out there, had a great day, and I’m glad I could help my team win."
Haig’s 213 PATs (in 216 attempts) are the school record, too. His 41 career field goals trail Openlander by one for second place on the all-time Marshall list (Klein is tops with 54).
It’s one thing for a kicker to convert. It’s another when conditions are as wet and blustery as the Tri-State weather delivered Saturday.
"Conditions today were very challenging," Haig said. "It’s definitely not an ideal situation when it’s raining, 40 degrees, and windy. Matt Cincotta and Tyler Williams did a great job putting the ball down. The (offensive) line did a great job as well."
It’s one thing to kick four field goals. Haig became the fourth Herd place-kicker to do that, joining David Merrick (versus East Tennessee State, 1993), Openlander (at The Citadel, 1995) and the aforementioned Malashevich.
And Willy Merrick has to have the most celebrated field goal in Herd history, his 22-yarder with 0:07 left to give Marshall its first NCAA Division I-AA title, a 1992 victory over Youngstown State, 31-28. As title kickers go in Herd annals, there’s Merrick and Haig.
"That’s crazy," Haig said, "but it’s got a nice little ring to it through."
Think of all the seniors who have brought back Marshall football – Cato, Roberts, Rouse, Shuler, Jasperse, Hewitt, Holmes, Frohnapfel, Myers, Blackmon … But how many of the drenched and delirious 23,711 in Edwards Stadium on Saturday and those watching the ESPN2 national telecast expected a place-kicker to be the game’s MVP?
Those chances increased as the game went on, with the Herd coping with four turnovers and a blocked punt, trailing for nearly 51 minutes, and never taking the lead until Rakeem Cato’s second touchdown pass, a 5-yarder to Deon-Tay McManus with 1:35 left.
As a pressure mounted, Haig understood the game could hinge on the swing of his right leg.
"You’re supposed to go in with the mindset that every kick is going to be the same and means the same," the 22-year-old Haig said. "But that being said, you know, the weather wasn’t there, it was a struggle (on offense) and we need to take advantage of every time we could get points on the board.
"We needed to do that, as a unit, as a special teams/field goal unit. And I think we did a great job. We’d been out on the field 95 times (this season) and converted points all but four times (75-for-75 PAT, 16-of-20 field goals), so it’s a tremendous amount of credit to the offensive line. And Matt and Tyler, they did a great job."
Yes, and on college football’s "Championship Saturday," Haig was more than an MVP … Most Valuable Place-kicker.
His work kept the Herd’s foot in the door all day.