Dec. 29, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Rakeem Cato was certain of it. Alex Bazzie wasn’t quite as sure.
Cato has had better statistics than he had in becoming the Most Valuable Player of the 2013 Military Bowl, as he passed for a bowl record-tying three touchdowns.
Bazzie perhaps hasn’t had a stronger presence and more resourceful performance than the Marshall senior defensive end had against his home-state Maryland Terrapins in Friday’s 31-20 Thundering Herd victory.
Yet, from offense and defense, they arrived at the same juncture at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium -- the capstone of a special 10-4 season for coach Doc Holliday’s fourth MU team.
“This was my best feeling as the Marshall quarterback,” said Cato, who completed 28-of-44 passes for 337 yards – the 13th 300-yard passing game of his Herd career. “I can honestly say that. It’s 10 wins, a double-digit season, a big bowl win.
“We sent the seniors out on good note. The rest of us … I can’t wait for spring practice to get back to work with those other guys coming back.”
It was only the second Herd win over a BCS automatic-qualifying conference team in the last decade, but Marshall seems to have this postseason stuff figured out.
The Herd has won eight of its last nine bowl appearances, and is 8-3 (.727) in its bowl history. Among major college programs, only Utah (13-4, .765) has a better record for schools that have played in at least 10 postseason games.
Bazzie, playing his final game about 30 miles from his Silver Spring hometown, was one of those who was the recipient of a successful senior sendoff. He finished with seven tackles (six solos), but what was more important were his game-high four tackles for loss – one a third-and-1 hit on Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown that forced the Terps to take a field goal, keeping Marshall in front at halftime.
Only eight players in this major college season have had more tackles for loss in a game than Bazzie’s four. None of those eight have come in the postseason that passes its halfway point Monday.
“I would say this was one of my best games,” said Bazzie, a two-year starter. “But knowing what it was about and when and what came with it, how the season went and how we ended it, maybe it was the best.
“Last year (with a 5-7 Herd team), I might have had a lot of good games, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win. To win this one and end the season the way we did, and all of us seniors finishing our careers the way we did, I’m very, very happy.-- and so it might be the best game of all.”
One thing Cato and Bazzie were on the same page about was the punting of sophomore Tyler Williams, and both starters mentioned in early in their postgame conversations.
Williams had struggled the first two-thirds of this season compared to his rookie college year, when he set Marshall’s school record with a 45.19-yard average. However, the Hoosier State booter finished with a flourish.
In Herd wins over FIU and East Carolina and a Conference USA title game loss at Rice, Williams averaged 46.4 yards on 14 punts and had seven kicks of more than 50 yards.
In the Military Bowl, Williams forced the Terrapins to go long, dropping punts at the Maryland 1, 5, 1 and 8. He would have had another one inside the 1, but covering teammate Deandre Reaves couldn’t quite control the bouncing ball or his momentum that became a touchback.
In Marshall’s first 13 games, Williams had nine punts inside the 20, and only two inside the 10.
“It’s like I said up there before (in the formal postgame interview session),” Cato said, “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”
Bazzie was part of a big-time defensive performance against Maryland, headed to the Big Ten after dropping its final football game as an ACC member. Six Herd players had at least six tackles, led by linebacker Evan McKelvey’s nine and true freshman strong safety Tiquan Lang’s eight solos. Backup free safety A.J. Leggett’s game-sealing fourth interception of the season (that led a Herd team with 18 picks) finished off the Terps.
As Cato led Marshall to two game-deciding scores in the final 12 minutes after Maryland went on a seemingly endless drive (99 yards, 17 plays, 7:44) to take its only lead at 20-17 on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Herd defense continued to make a name for itself under first-year coordinator Chuck Heater.
“I told our guys, over and over, we have to get to the point where our defense can win the game,” Heater said, speaking generically, considering Marshall’s offense that averaged 42.1 points this season, which ranks seventh in FBS.
Maryland gained only 33 yards on four series after its long scoring drive. The Terps finished with 391 yards, but only 151 in the second half – and 99 of that came on one series. Even bigger for Heater’s hitmen was a superb 2-of-14 effort on Maryland third-down conversions.
With those kind of defense numbers, perhaps the Herd’s bowl headquarters should have been the Pentagon.
Herd opponents had only 33.6 percent success on third-down conversions this season, ranking Marshall No. 20 nationally as of Saturday. That’s an improvement from 44.8 percent and No. 99 ranking in 2012.
“At times, as electrifying and productive as our offense is, we’ve got to be the ones to give them that little energy boost,” Bazzie said. “They can’t do it on their own, which is what we found out last year. We can’t always go shootout after shootout and expect to be successful, and at times in this game, it was a little they would go score and we would go score.
“And we looked at ourselves over on the bench, the defense, and say we can’t let this be a shootout. We want to be known and recognized as a great defense, as a defense that flies around and plays until the whistle blows. We kind of took pride in that today and it showed at a very important time.”
And the Herd defense produced despite being on the field for almost seven minutes more than the offense. That was a season-long trend that also underscores the improvement on that side of the ball for Holliday’s program.
Marshall ranks 116th of 125 FBS teams in time of possession, with only 26:56. That leaves 33:04 for the defense to play.
Bazzie said the Herd’s challenge was to stop the Terps’ run game, and Maryland finished with 194 yards on the ground. But “when” – third down success – was more significant than raw numbers.
“Coming into the game, we knew if you allow a team to proceed in the running game, it’s going to be a long game for the defense,” Bazzie said when asked about his tackles for loss, two of which came on third downs. “So, we knew coming in we had to stop the run. It was a tough challenge at first, but we found a way to get it done.
“(Maryland quarterback) C.J. Brown is a heckuva player and they like the ball in his hands on third down and I just had a feeling it was coming. And it was that extra push, that extra strain. Not giving up on the play allowed me to get him down and get them into a fourth down situation.”
He said he tried not to think about the Military Bowl being his last game, or that it was in his home state, against the team from his neighborhood.
In that regard, Bazzie wasn’t as successful as he was in slowing the Big Ten-bound Turtles.
“I thought about it being my last game in the beginning, and it was kind of like, ‘Oh, I missed this tackle,’” Bazzie said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, it’s my last game, I don’t want to do that,’ and it was becoming a little overwhelming.
“So I just relaxed, and some of my teammates told me, ‘Just don’t think about it. Just go out and make plays.’ … Easier said than done. Don’t do too much because it’s your last game, but don’t do so little because it’s the last game. And that was a lot of support, and once I started to relax, I started playing like myself.
Bottom line, was his last game his best game?
“I honestly don’t know,” said Bazzie, who will hand over the Herd’s rush end position – “Fox” – to speedy 2014 redshirt sophomore Gary Thompson, who was no. 2 there this season. “I just knew that today was the last go-round for me, but it was a new beginning for the underclassmen, and I just wanted them to understand that this carries over into the next season.
“You know, you show a great performance and you go on into the next season with confidence and great chemistry.
“I wasn’t concerned too much about coming home and facing the home state (team). That wasn’t my concern until after, when I looked up and I saw the stuff on that scoreboard and then the clock said double-zero.
“That’s when I realized that, ‘Wow, I just beat the home state team.’ That’s when it kicked in.”
And that’s when the kelly green party started to sail at Navy.
# # #
A look at Marshall’s bowl MVPs (season is year listed):
1947 Tangerine – Don Gibson, E
1997 Motor city – B.J. Cohen, DE
1998 Motor City – Chad Pennington, QB
1999 Motor City – Doug Chapman, RB
2000 Motor City – Byron Leftwich, QB
2001 GMAC – Byron Leftwich, QB
2002 GMAC – Byron Leftwich, OB
2004 Fort Worth – None (Marshall lost to Cincinnati; no losing-team MVP selected)
2009 Little Caesars Pizza – Martin Ward, RB
2011 Beef ‘O’ Brady – Aaron Dobson, WR
2013 Military – Rakeem Cato, QB