Marshall football: Herd resilient, continues to battle
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- When you're three wins away from bowl eligibility with four regular season games to go - as the Marshall football team was entering Saturday's matchup versus Memphis - victory has no obligation to be beautiful.
"As long as we get the 'W,' " Herd sophomore quarterback Rakeem Cato said. "If it's an ugly win, dirty win, happy win, whatever win, we need to get the win. I don't care if we beat a team 80 to zip or 3-0."
There have been prettier wins than the Thundering Herd's 38-28 win over the Tigers, a game the Herd (4-5, 3-2 Conference USA) led by as many as 24 before the Tigers (1-8, 1-4) rattled off three consecutive touchdowns to make Marshall fans sweat. Yet that win provided several benefits for the Herd.
It snapped a three-game home losing streak, the longest since Marshall lost three straight at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in 2007.
It helped wash some of the sour taste from the previous week's blowout loss to Central Florida. And it gives Marshall a spark heading into Saturday's 4:30 p.m. kickoff at Alabama-Birmingham (CSS/WCHS).
"We needed this," linebacker Billy Mitchell said. "Definitely at home after last week, this is a great win for us. Great for us, great for the fans and a great confidence builder for next week against UAB."
Memphis did what it could to shake Marshall's confidence in the second half.
It looked like the Herd would breeze to victory, up 31-7 following the third of Cato's four touchdown passes - a 9-yarder to fullback Devon Johnson. Yet the Tigers started leafing through the lesser-used pages of the playbook to climb back into the game.
They scored 14 points without Marshall gaining possession.
After Jesse Milleson's 1-yard touchdown catch from Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam, the Tigers recovered an onside kick and finished that drive with a 2-yard Jai Steib run.
Marshall went three plays and out on its next drive, and the Tigers scored a third touchdown on a six-play, 65-yard drive, 61 yards coming on punter Tom Hornsey's punt-fake jump-pass to Bobby McCain.
Memphis scored after Steib fumbled into the end zone from the 1 and left tackle Jordan Devey recovered.
A comfortable lead became a 31-28 nailbiter and the Herd was reeling. But it didn't fold and didn't fracture. Players beseeched each other to hold their heads up and regain their focus.
"We had great leadership," defensive end Jeremiah Taylor said. "We had offensive guys in the defensive huddle, defensive guys in the offensive huddle. That's exactly what we needed. Guys didn't quit, didn't give up and we got through it."
Marshall recovered in the fourth quarter with Cato's 28-yard touchdown to Davonte Allen on fourth and 6.
Then the Herd's defense stopped Memphis on fourth down for the first time in seven tries, when Cortez Carter stormed into the Memphis backfield on a blitz and sacked Karam.
While Marshall survived the Tigers, the Herd knows it might not be so lucky this Saturday versus the Blazers. UAB won its second game of the year by scoring 20 straight points for a 27-19 comeback win over Southern Mississippi. The Blazers' record doesn't look so intimidating, but neither did Memphis'.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said his team has to put its opponents away and avoid the special teams breakdowns and fourth-down issues that allowed Memphis to make things interesting.
"You have to finish," Holliday said. "We finished at Southern Miss. We finished out here against Western Carolina, but we didn't finish it (against Memphis) the way we need to finish it."
The players know they'll likely see the same nothing-left-to-lose feats of daring they saw against Memphis. As they learned against the Tigers, an absence of success doesn't guarantee an opponent won't be dangerous.
"You can never really tell a team by its record," Mitchell said. "We have to be ready. We can't just expect to show up and win. We have to show up and be ready to play."
The Herd has no choice. Marshall has three games to win two to reach its second consecutive bowl. Cato said Marshall's ability to weather the Memphis comeback and ice the game shows that his teammates are resilient.
"You have to keep fighting," Cato said. "That's what the game of football is about. You win some and you lose some, but you never give up."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.