Dec. 28, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Perhaps appropriately, the Military Bowl was mostly about defense.
Marshall football coach Doc Holliday has preached and re-preached that defense wins championships. Apparently, defense wins bowl games, too.
The Thundering Herd turned a whopper of an opportunity into a giant party Friday evening, coming from behind in the fourth quarter for a 31-20 victory over Maryland in the sixth annual Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
It gave Marshall (10-4) its most wins in a season since the 2002 Herd went 11-2 and sent a savvy bunch of seniors out happily. MU hadn’t beaten an ACC team since winning at Clemson in the 1999 opener of what became a perfect season.
The victory was rooted in resiliency and resourcefulness.
“What a great bowl, what a great atmosphere,” said Holliday, who is now 2-0 in Herd bowls. “Our fans showed up in masses and really supported us, and I’m really proud of our team. I thought our offense played tremendous, our defense played lights out and special teams were really good.
“It’s just great to get the momentum heading into next season and send these seniors out the right way.”
While the Herd defense – retooled into an aggressive bunch of stoppers under first-year coordinator Chuck Heater – stuffed the Terrapins (7-6) when it was needed, to say that side of the ball was solely responsible for this triumph would be cheating two-third of the team.
After all, Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato was named the bowl’s Most Valuable Player, with a 28-of-44 passing night for 337 yards and three touchdowns. And when it was over and the joyous Herd fans in a crowd of 30,163 were well into celebratory chanting, cheering and song, a player most of his teammates talked about was sophomore punter Tyler Williams.
He had so many pins, you’d have thought he was one of those star wrestlers like Holliday once was back home at Hurricane High School.
“It was a true team effort,” said Cato, who threw two of his scoring passes to tight end Gator Hoskins. “Week in, week out, I pride myself on practicing hard. I think I’m a good practice player and I like to be around people who are.
“I encourage other guys to take it serious and this team has. It was a great team effort. I feel like our special teams were huge, Tyler Williams’ punting especially big. And when we needed to score, we scored. And when we needed to stop them, we stopped them.”
Maryland converted only 2-of-14 third downs, the seventh time this season Heater’s hitters allowed an opponent four or fewer third-to-first down successes. And after the Terps drove a Military Bowl record 99 yards on 17 plays to take their only lead – 20-17 – on the first play of the fourth quarter, Marshall rallied as it had in wins at FAU and Tulsa.
“These kids never flinched,” said Holliday who got a signature victory over a power conference team that’s headed to the Big Ten Conference. “If there’s one thing I like about this group, it’s that it didn’t matter. One thing we talked about all along, all week, especially this morning, is let’s go out and play hard, play great, and we did.
“They weren’t concerned about the scoreboard or anything else. They played extremely hard. Being able to answer back right there, that was huge. Getting the turnovers late was really good.”
After that length-of-the-field scoring drive, Maryland managed only 33 yards on four possessions, as the Herd scored twice. It took only 2:51 for Marshall to regain the lead, as Essray Taliaferro’s 7-yard touchdown run capped a nine-play, 63-yard drive.
The Terps were forced to punt on their next two series, and then Marshall sealed the deal. The crucial – and impressive – play was provided by a Cato-to-Hoskins’ 28-yard completion, the quarterback’s longest of the game.
It came on a third-and-11 from the Maryland 36, and the senior tight end dragged Terp tacklers about 7 yards after they tried to corral him. After a Maryland timeout with 3:47 to go, Cato again hit Hoskins with an 8-yard scoring pass for a 31-20 lead.
It also was Cato’s 58th red-zone TD pass in his career, compared to only one interception. His three TD passes tied a Military Bowl record, too, and with 39 TD passes this season, he tied Chad Pennington’s single-season Marshall record from 1997.
The Marshall junior leads active FBS passers with touchdown throws in 32 consecutive games. The NCAA record is 38, set by Russell Wilson from 2009-11 at N.C. State and Wisconsin.
And when Herd safety A.J. Leggett intercepted Terps quarterback C.J. Brown at the Herd 19 – the game’s only turnover – Marshall had its eighth victory in its last nine bowls (8-3 overall).
“If we’re going to give away game balls, I won’t have enough of them,” Holliday said. “I mean, that whole team deserves a game ball, the way they played, the way they fought.”
The Herd offense accomplished what it did despite losing starting right guard Clint Van Horn to a left shoulder injury on the first series, and line coach Alex Mirabal went with backup guards Michael Selby and Blake Brooks on every third series because Marshall wanted more girth and starters Alex Schooler and Sebastian Johansson were banged up, too.
Holliday praised Van Horn’s replacement, Gage Niemeyer, for “stepping up, playing big” in his last game as Van Horn’s fill-in. Hoskins, meanwhile, who leads all tight ends nationally with 15 TD catches this season, closed his career with 28 career scores.
In Herd history, only Randy Moss (53) and Darius Watts (47) had more TD receptions.
The defensive charge was led by two seniors, end Alex Bazzie and tackle James Rouse. Bazzie had a game-high four tackles for loss, playing every down like it was his last. Rouse tied a military bowl record with two sacks.
As for Williams, he punted seven times for a 40.6-yard average. That wasn’t the big news.
He left the Terps’ backs in the shadow of their own goalpost by dropping floaters at the 1, 5, 1 and 8 yard lines. He would have had another one downed inside the 1, but covering teammate Deandre Reaves couldn’t quite control it or his momentum that became a touchback.
“Tyler, I don’t know how many he put down in there, but he was tremendous,” Holliday said. “That was huge as far as field position goes.”
Maryland’s average drive start was at its own 18. The Herd’s average start was at its 37.
Taliaferro, another senior, rushed for a team-high 81 yards in his final game. He finished his final season with 1,140 yards, the most by a Herd back since Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 1,523 in 2006.
Slot receiver Tommy Shuler led all pass catchers with nine for 68 yards, giving him a 106-catch season on the heels of his school-record 110 a year ago. The junior from Miami is one of only eight players in major college history to have multiple 100-catch seasons.
Hoskins had six catches for 104 yards and closed his final season with 50 receptions – 15 more than a year ago – to go with 821 yards and 15 TDs.
"I tell the guys all the time,” Cato said, “that big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”
Asked how much the Herd program has improved since he and Holliday arrived in the same season four years ago, Hoskins said, “Well, we were 5-7 my first year, and now we’re 10-4, so that tells you right there.”
The 2012 season in which the Herd defense struggled to stop any foe seems a distant memory. No longer does Marshall needs to outshoot an opponent with Cato’s arm to win games. “I told our guys, over and over, we have to get to the point where our defense can win the game,” an emotional Heater said on the field as Holliday clutched the bowl trophy. “This was a good start.”
The Terps didn’t have a third-down conversion after halftime, and Marshall simply wore down Maryland in the final quarter, when the Herd kept the ball for nearly 10 minutes.
Holliday said the 2013 Marshall seniors “got to back to playing for championships, got us back to double-digit wins … This team is going to be known as the senior class who got us back to where we want to go.
“To play like this on a national stage (ESPN telecast) was special. It means so much to our program. Our win over East Carolina (59-28 for the Conference USA East Division title) was a tremendous win, but this Maryland team beat Virginia Tech. We beat a good football team here.
“Marshall has only beaten a couple of BCS teams in the last 10 years, I guess. We won at Louisville (in 2011) and now we won a bowl game over Maryland.
“I think this football team is getting back to where we can play with anybody. And it’s a lot of fun to coach a team like that.”
The popular translation for “10-4” is “OK.” For another bowl-winning Herd team, 10-4 is much better than just OK.