Marshall football: Herd earns comeback win over FAU, 24-23
BOCA RATON, Fla. – For the Marshall football team this season, if it's been close, it hasn't been pretty.
Entering Saturday's game at Florida Atlantic University, the Thundering Herd had won three games by an average of 39 points and lost two by an average of 5.5. One couldn't really categorize the Herd's win over FAU as pretty – until the very end.
Marshall's struggling offense pulled together for a nine-play, 67-yard drive with 2:06 remaining, and Justin Haig drilled a 41-yard field goal with time running out to erase what had been a nine-point deficit and give the Herd a 24-23 win and a 2-0 Conference USA start for the first time since 2008.
"That's the story of that football team in there right now for three years," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "For three years, we didn't find a way to (win close games). I'm really so proud of the way they fought and scratched and at the end of the day, we found a way to win the game."
The Herd's (4-2, 2-0 C-USA) game-winning drive started out a bit inauspiciously, after Rakeem Cato ended a 20-yard scramble with an illegal forward pass he thought was a lateral. But the drive stayed alive and got its biggest boost when Cato lofted a jump-ball to 5-foot-7 senior receiver Devon Smith, who beat 5-11 corner Cre'von LeBlanc for a 35-yard gain to FAU 26. From there, the Herd set up for Haig's game-winning field goal.
It was a bit of vindication for Haig, who graduated from American Heritage High School in nearby Delray Beach. Two games ago against Virginia Tech, Haig missed one field goal in regulation and had a potential game-winner blocked in the first overtime, as the Hokies escaped with a triple-overtime win. Saturday night's 41-yarder was his third straight field goal and longest of the season.
FAU Coach Carl Pelini tried everything he could to ice Haig on the kick, calling back-to-back time outs.
"I just focused on staying concentrated, really," Haig said. "I just went through my steps, tried to stay lose and that's about it. It personally doesn't bother me. It allows me to gather everything. I'm not in a rush. It allows me to stay lose, focus and concentrate on the kick."
The Herd scored 10 points in the game's final 6:47 after scoring just one offensive touchdown for the rest of the game. Marshall's fourth-quarter touchdown came on fourth and 5 from the Owls 41, when Cato found tight end Gator Hoskins and Hoskins powered through a couple of tackles to race into the end zone. That touchdown was the 18th of his career, pulling into a tie for 10th in the Marshall record books with Nate Poole, LaVorn Colclough and Antavious Wilson.
It was the brightest spot for Marshall's offense, which gained a season-low 355 yards against the Owls (2-5, 1-4 C-USA). The two fourth-quarter scoring drives accounted for 155 of those yards. Cato threw for 216 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 18-of-34 passing and tied Essray Taliaferro for the team lead in rushing with 45 yards.
Meanwhile, Marshall's defense got everything it could handle from FAU's dual-threat quarterback Jaquez Johnson. The 6-1, 225-pound sophomore led FAU with 78 yards rushing and a touchdown and threw for 187 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 16-of-28 passing.
Despite what the Owls were able to do against the Herd, Pelini couldn't ignore the pain of a loss.
"You know what, it really doesn't matter," he said. "You can't play nine-tenths of a game. You have to play ten-tenths of a game. So there are no moral victories. I said that after the Middle Tennessee State (loss). We're a good-enough team, we should be winning these games. We just have to figure out how to do it. I'm not going to pat anybody on the back after a loss."
Smith came up with the Herd's most spectacular play of the game, a 77-yard punt return that he started on the far sideline and weaved across the field before he dove into the near side of the end zone. He and Hoskins led Marshall with 50 receiving yards each. Jermaine Holmes led the defense with eight tackles, seven solo, and an interception.
The Herd is off next Saturday, but has a short week the next week, visiting Middle Tennessee on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1).
– Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.