Marshall football: Freshmen rejuvenate ground game
HOUSTON, W.Va. -- Marshall running back Remi Watson admitted he and fellow redshirt freshmen Kevin Grooms and Steward Butler felt like forgotten men in the Thundering Herd's offense.
Who could blame the trio for thinking that after they combined for just three carries in Marshall's loss to Ohio?
"We just felt like people were sleeping on us, thinking we were just some mediocre, average guys," Watson said. "We were like, let's show them."
What they showed was that what was the Football Bowl Subdivision's top passing offense could get it done on the ground. Led by Grooms, Butler and Watson, the Herd (2-2, 1-0 Conference USA) rushed for 334 yards and six touchdowns in its 54-51 double-overtime win at Rice.
It was the ground game that eventually saved the Herd from dropping yet another contest in the state of Texas.
Watson opened overtime with a four-yard touchdown run, and in the second overtime Grooms trumped Chris Boswell's 28-yard field goal with a five-yard touchdown run, his third rushing score of the game and fourth overall.
The three redshirt freshmen earned the opportunity to carry the offense after former starting running back Travon Van moved to cornerback to reinforce a depleted depth chart there. Van led Marshall against the Bobcats with 13 carries, but gained just 15 yards. Short gains were seldom seen against the Owls (1-3, 0-1).
Grooms began the scoring with a 17-yard first-quarter touchdown run, then Butler added another score in the first, from 57 yards out. That Butler touchdown run was just two yards short of Marshall's entire rushing output against Ohio, and the Herd had 79 yards on the ground by the end of the first quarter.
By the end of the game, Marshall had surpassed the 300-yard mark for the first time since gaining 317 yards on 46 carries against the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Oct. 21, 2006. Grooms and Butler went over the 100-yard mark, gaining 103 and 166 yards, respectively. Watson added 84 yards. It was the first time Marshall had two 100-yard rushers in one game since Martin Ward gained 136 yards and Terrell Edwards-Maye gained 113 against Southern Methodist on Nov. 21, 2009.
Butler knew he, Grooms and Watson had that type of performance in them, but he was a little surprised that Marshall's running game exploded like it did.
"We weren't playing much, but I knew we'd make a big difference if we did play," Butler said. "I didn't think it was going to change that much, but we did good."
Grooms felt especially motivated against the Owls. Against Ohio, at least Watson carried twice and Butler carried once. Grooms, who had led the team in rushing yards per game after the season's first two contests, did not receive a single carry.
"It made me feel like I had to prove a lot," Grooms said of his inactivity against Ohio. "I didn't feel right sitting on the sidelines knowing I can help my team win and knowing I can make plays. It gave me the opportunity, I had to take off and show everyone what I can do."
Marshall's running game was so effective that quarterback Rakeem Cato, who leads the FBS in both passing yards (370 per game) and completions (35.5 per game), told coaches to stick with the run. Cato still completed 28 of 39 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns, but wasn't about to let the running game lose its momentum.
"They couldn't stop the run all night," Cato said. "I told Coach Legg to forget about the pass plays. I'll be a decoy if I have to and just hand the ball off if I have to. He wanted to call a few more pass plays, but I said no, just keep running the ball."
Marshall's running backs announced their presence in the nick of time. This coming Saturday, the Herd visits Purdue and the No. 25 run defense in the FBS, allowing just 110.33 yards per game. And after what they were able to do against the Owls, it's unlikely Grooms, Butler and Watson will be forgotten men any longer.
"Those kids get into space," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said, "they can make something happen."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.