Marshall football: Herd’s bowl hopes shrink with loss
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Marshall University football players admitted they didn't come out with the proper energy to face the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
And for the rest of the season, they have no choice.
That lack of fire put the Thundering Herd in a 17-point halftime hole against the Blazers. And even though the Herd rekindled that flame in a furious second-half rally, it still fell to UAB 38-31 at Legion Field.
With that loss, the Herd's margin of error has shriveled to nothing. Marshall (4-6, 3-3 Conference USA) must win its last two games - at home Saturday versus Houston (noon, CSS) and at East Carolina the day after Thanksgiving - to reach a second consecutive bowl. The thing is, the Herd hasn't won consecutive games this season.
"Just hold their head up," defensive end Jeremiah Taylor said of his message to the rest of the team. "The season's not over. It's our job to send these seniors out the right way and get us to a bowl game. We've got two games left, two tough games. We have to just keep moving forward and get better."
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday thought his team looked pretty good at the outset of Saturday's game. On UAB's first drive of the game, Taylor sacked Blazers quarterback Austin Brown and forced a fumble. The ball bounced all the way to UAB's 2-yard line before Derrick Thomas pounced on in. Marshall running back Remi Watson barreled in for a touchdown on the next play for a 7-0 Herd lead. Then corner Keith Baxter, Jr., came up big, intercepting Brown at Marshall's 19 on the ensuing drive.
But that was the end of the Herd's happy times.
Marshall had to punt following that interception, and when Tyler Williams booted it to Jackie Williams, the UAB returner weaved through defenders and shook Marshall's Williams to gallop 79 yards for a touchdown.
After that, the Blazers (3-7, 4-2 C-USA) extended the lead to 24-7 at halftime.
"I thought we came out ready," Holliday said. "We had the turnover right away and stuck it right in (for a touchdown). We just weren't blocking and making the plays we need to make."
Those plays were non-existent on offense in the first half. UAB dared the Herd to run, dropping eight defenders back into coverage. Marshall obliged, but gained only 68 yards on 28 first-half carries. With Marshall doubling down on the run, quarterback Rakeem Cato had few chances to showcase his high-powered arm.
Cato, who entered Saturday's game as the Football Bowl Subdivision's leader in passing yards, completed just nine of 13 passes for 53 yards and an interception, getting sacked three times. Tackle Jordan Jeffries said Marshall's offense just didn't have the right fire in the first half.
"We came out flat," Jeffries said. "It's as simple as that. We worked hard all week and game-planned and we just came out flat. We didn't have any energy, didn't execute what we were supposed to do. They had all the momentum.
"We have to play four quarters," he added. "You can't win a football game playing a good half."
But the Herd twice came within seven points of tying Saturday's game. The offense rose from its first-half slumber to score 24 second-half points. In the fourth quarter, after Brandon Sparrow blocked a UAB field goal that Dominick LeGrande returned to the Blazers' 29, Justin Haig kicked a 38-yard field goal to cut UAB's lead to 31-24.
The Blazers retaliated with a healthy dose of running back Darrin Reaves. Reaves, who finished the night with 184 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries, ended an 11-play, 80-yard drive with his 17-yard touchdown. On that drive, Reaves carried the ball seven times, including the final six straight plays.
Marshall responded with Cato's second touchdown pass of the night, a 3-yarder to tight end Gator Hoskins, but the Herd couldn't recover the onside kick and UAB ran out the clock.
Now the pressure is on for Marshall. The Herd wants to point to some measure of progress in Holliday's third season at the helm. A second straight bowl game could do that, especially since that hasn't happened in Huntington since reaching six straight from 1997 to 2002. But the Blazers had the weakest record among Marshall's final three opponents. Houston comes into Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Saturday in the exact same predicament as the Herd, needing to win two straight for bowl eligibility. If Marshall can get past the Cougars, it must go to 6-4 East Carolina and win its regular season finale.
Beating the Blazers could have given Marshall some breathing room, but the Herd's first-half struggles left a hole too deep to escape.
"Right now, we're kicking ourselves," defensive end Jeremiah Taylor said. "We let a lot of opportunities go unfulfilled."
Any more letdowns and the opportunity for Marshall to play in the postseason could go unfulfilled as well.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.