GREENVILLE, N.C. – Despite a furious comeback in the highest scoring game in Conference USA history, a game that eclipsed the century mark in points and the millennium mark in yards gained, the Marshall football team will spend the bowl season at home yet again.
Down three touchdowns in the first half and without record-setting starting quarterback Rakeem Cato for much of the second half, the Thundering Herd took East Carolina to two overtimes before falling 65-59 on Friday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
"To find a way to fight back into it and lose the way we did, I just feel bad for the kids," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said.
Marshall (5-7, 4-4 Conference USA) finished with a losing record for the sixth time in eight seasons, and the second time in three seasons under Holliday.
The end came for the Herd after it matched the Pirates' (8-4, 7-1 C-USA) touchdown in the first overtime. ECU quarterback Shane Carden hit Andrew Bodenheimer on a 25-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime, then backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel found Antavious Wilson for a four-yard score.
Marshall got the ball first in the second overtime, but running back Essray Taliaferro fumbled away to ECU's Derrell Johnson at the Pirates' 11-yard line. ECU took over on its 25 and, four rushes later, Carden snuck in for the winning one-yard score.
"It's unfortunate (Taliaferro) turned it over in the end, because he played well the whole game," Holliday said. "He played his tail off."
Taliaferro started the game because running backs Kevin Grooms and Steward Butler both were hobbled with injuries. The junior carried the ball 27 times for 132 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 50 yards.
The biggest injury came about halfway through the third quarter when Cato injured his left knee and ankle after being dragged down on a pass attempt. Trainers fitted him with a knee brace and wrapped his ankle – and he came back out for one red-zone pass, an attempt to Shuler that sailed high – but he was done after that.
Under Cato, the Herd stormed back from a 28-7 deficit with 10 minutes left in the second quarter to cut ECU's lead to 42-38 on Justin Haig's 24-yard field goal. Cato ended his day completing 31 of 40 passes for 318 yards, five touchdowns and an interception.
Yet Frohnapfel, a redshirt freshman with just eight pass attempts entering Friday's game, stayed cool under fire and gave the Herd its first lead since going up 7-0 in the first quarter. His 51-yard touchdown run, on a zone read so effective the television cameras followed the fake to Taliaferro, put Marshall ahead 45-42.
In the end, though, Marshall's defense struggled in crunch time. The Herd could have ended the game in regulation when the Pirates were staring at fourth and 10 with less than two minutes left. But Carden, who had thrown two incompletions and a pass for no gain to Vintavious Cooper the three plays before, found Justin Hardy for a 19-yard gain to move the chains. Nine plays later, Carden hit Danny Webster for a six-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone.