Marshall football: Herd clings to bowl hopes
HUNTINGTON - The question was innocent enough, but Dominick LeGrande didn't want to answer it.
The Marshall safety apologized profusely to the reporter, extremely polite for a homing missile who averages 11 tackles a game. He just didn't want to even broach the topic of which team he wanted to play in a bowl. The Thundering Herd remained one win away from that reality.
"I don't want to jinx anything," he said.
He and the Herd nearly missed the chance to keep dreaming of their bowl aspirations. It took Marshall's defense finally firming up in the second half and the offense making one last quick-strike drive to allow Justin Haig to trickle a 45-yard field goal over the crossbar with seven seconds left to beat Houston 44-41.
That win kept the Herd (5-6, 4-3 Conference USA) alive for a bowl berth heading into Friday's 2 p.m. regular season finale at East Carolina (CBS Sports Network). It also forced the Cougars (4-7, 3-4 C-USA) to stay home for the holidays.
What LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha - LeGrande's inseparable fellow safety and Boston College transfer - were more than ready to discuss was what the Herd needed going into its all-or-nothing showdown with the Pirates (7-4, 6-1 C-USA).
"This has got to be the hardest week of practice we've ever had," Okoroha said. "Out of everyone. Individuals, everyone has to come out. More from everyone. More from us, more from the players, more from the coaches, more from the staff, more from everyone."
The Herd was getting more prayer on the sidelines as the final minutes ticked down. Marshall had staked itself to a three-touchdown lead over the Cougars and held it until halfway through the third quarter. But Cougars stormed back with 31 second-half points. Backup quarterback Crawford Jones, playing in place of injured starter David Piland, threw for 316 yards and five touchdowns. Kenneth Farrow - taking the lion's share of Houston's carries after starter Charles Sims' bum ankle forced him to the sideline - rushed for a team-high 78 yards.
Yet Houston's backup brigade finally stalled out at the Marshall 11 with 1:18 left in the game. The Cougars had to settle for a 28-yard Matt Hogan field goal to tie the game at 41-41, rather than a touchdown to take the lead.
"Me and (receiver) Tommy (Shuler) were talking on the sideline, saying something's got to give," quarterback Rakeem Cato said. "We were praying on the sidelines, just talking to God. Something was going to happen. Then the defense came up with the stop, and that's when God struck."
And that's when Marshall's offense struck, driving to the edge of Haig's field goal range in one minute and 11 seconds, thanks to three completions for 22 yards and a 16-yard scramble from Cato. Haig's initial attempt inched over the crossbar, but Houston had called a time out before the snap. His second kick followed nearly the same trajectory.
As the Herd prepares for its regular-season finale, it has plenty of places from which it can draw momentum.
Marshall amassed a season-high 665 yards of total offense, including 377 yards and three passing touchdowns from Cato and 288 rushing yards. The defense forced Houston into three-and-out situations on four of the Cougars' first five drives.
Areas for critique still remain. As much as the defense helped Marshall to that 31-10 lead, it allowed the Cougars to shake out of its offensive slumber and tie a game that should have been out of reach. Special teams breakdowns piled up again. Herd Coach Doc Holliday cringed at his kickoff team, which went to squib kickoffs and allowed a "Music City Miracle"-type lateral in the third quarter that put Houston on Marshall's 19.
"Whether you win or lose, you have to learn from it," offensive tackle Jordan Jeffries said.
"We're going to learn a lot about our team from this game. We weathered the storm. They were coming back and scoring points, but we didn't get down. We couldn't let them win. I guess you could say we have a lot of resilience.
"But at the same time, it was our 11th game and it was a must win," he continued. "We had to do it. There was no other option. In our mind, it wasn't, 'We could lose this game, we could win this game.' It was ,'We will win this game.' "
If the Herd doesn't want Friday to be its final day on a football field this season, those thoughts will have to remain in the players' heads.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.