Marshall football: Success dependent on passing game for Herd
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Saturday's 51-41 loss at Purdue showed just how much the Marshall football team's passing game matters to the Thundering Herd's success.
When it's humming - like it was in the first, third and fourth quarters of the Herd's battle with the Boilermakers - it's a record-breaking machine that is tough for any team to stop, even a Purdue defense with a potential NFL first-round pick on its line.
When it's not - as in the catastrophic, three-interception second quarter that ultimately doomed the Herd - it's a predicament that's tough for Marshall (2-3, 1-0 Conference USA) to overcome.
"All that yardage and all that stuff's great," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "But when you lose the football game and turn the ball over, it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. We've got to find ways to win and find ways to take care of the football."
Those three picks - on consecutive drives - turned what could have been a shootout into a first-half blowout. All three interceptions led to touchdowns. The first came when a Rakeem Cato pass bounced out of the hands of receiver Aaron Dobson and into the hands of Antoine Lewis. That led to a Caleb TerBush-to-Gary Bush 35-yard touchdown pass five plays later.
The next two picks were run back for touchdowns. On the first, Ricardo Allen grabbed a pass thrown behind receiver Tommy Shuler and took it back 39 yards for a score. On the second, Josh Johnson jumped a short route and sprinted 74 yards for a touchdown and a 42-14 Purdue halftime lead.
Last year, when Cato threw four picks against Ohio, he struggled for the entire game. After Saturday's second-quarter nightmare, Shuler said Cato never put his head down.
"He stayed calm and came out ... he knew he threw those picks, but he said we just have to keep grinding, and keep going and put it behind us," Shuler said. "And we put it behind us and kept going."
Cato recovered to go interception-free and throw three touchdowns in the second half. The Herd cut Purdue's lead to 10 twice. The second time, Marshall was a missed two-point conversion away from cutting the lead to eight. Cato finished with a career-high 439 yards and five touchdowns, completing a Marshall single-game record 45 passes on 68 attempts. No quarterback had ever completed more passes against Purdue.
Yet, because of that second quarter, he could enjoy none of it.
"All that stuff don't mean nothing," Cato said. "That's zero yards, zero catches ... we don't get the win. So that don't mean nothing."
Those turnovers also put Marshall's defense on its heels, a defense that has struggled all year to stop the opposition. The Herd defense did its best in the second half to hold Purdue at bay, allowing just nine points in the final two quarters. Yet, even if you take away Purdue's two touchdowns on interception returns, Marshall's defense still allowed 37 points, 443 yards and let the Boilermakers convert 10 of 18 third downs. And that doesn't include 50-yard and 20-yard Purdue passes to open receivers that were negated by penalties.
It's a statistic aided by those two pick-sixes, but the Herd defense is now last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in points allowed, giving up 44.4 per game.
"We've got to get off the field," Holliday said. "There were several times we didn't get off the field. They're a good football team. You have to give them credit, but we have to find a way on third down to get off the field."
Defensive end Alex Bazzie said Marshall's defense needs to play its first halves like it has its second halves versus Ohio and Purdue, when the unit was much stingier. The entire team must play with more consistency, he said.
"Honestly, we're a team that we're on and off," Bazzie said. "We just need to get more enthused and more excited when we make a play. We're a team that just hasn't played all four quarters. We'll play this quarter and back down the next. We need to get all four quarters rolling."
Despite the setback, Holliday said there's still reason to look forward with optimism. The Herd is 1-0 in Conference USA and has the rest of conference play ahead of it, beginning at home with Tulsa at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network).
"All our goals are all still out there," Holliday said. "We wanted to come in and win this football game, but that didn't happen. All our goals and dreams are still ahead of us when Tulsa rolls into town on Saturday. We have to move on."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.