Marshall football: No Hokie hangover for Herd kicker
BOCA RATON, Fla. - As the seconds ticked closer to Marshall kicker Justin Haig's chance at a game-winning field goal - a wait that included two time outs in an attempt to ice him - the redshirt junior kept loose. He went through his steps and maintained his concentration.
What didn't enter his mind was the last time he had this opportunity, a chance that didn't turn out so well for the Thundering Herd.
Brushing away the bad vibes on a football field just up the road from his high school alma mater, Haig booted a 41-yard field goal with time running out to give Marshall a 24-23 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday night and give the Herd a 2-0 Conference USA start for the first time since 2008.
In the afterglow of that win, where the Herd (4-2, 2-0 C-USA) had to rally from nine points down with 6:47 left in the game, Haig praised everybody else on the field who had a hand in that successful kick.
"The O-line did a great job, Matt (Cincotta) had a great snap and Blake (Frohnapfel) had a great hold," Haig said. "People tend to overlook those things, and without those things, that kick's not possible. It takes 11 people to do a good job."
That field goal, Haig's longest of the year and his third-straight successful try, helped eliminate any of the tough memories from his last chance at a game-winner, in the first overtime versus Virginia Tech. It was a very similar scenario. The Herd got to a spot where they felt Haig could make the kick and ran it a couple of times to get the ball into the middle of the field.
Against the Hokies, that kick was blocked, Haig's second miss that day. Virginia Tech ultimately won that game in triple-overtime to hand Marshall its second straight loss. That disappointment wasn't easy to get over, Haig said.
"It was rough," he said. "It really was rough. We had tons of plays in that game that really could have changed the outcome of it. That was the most frustrating part. It wasn't one play. It wasn't the fourth quarter. We had tons of plays through the whole game that could have changed things and won the game. Ever since then, we've done great as a unit."
It had been weeks since that game, so the sting had started to wear off. Plus Haig had made two field goals in Marshall's convincing 34-10 win over the University of Texas at San Antonio. But Saturday night was Haig's first shot at a crunch-time kick.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said his faith in his kicker made it easy to set up a couple of runs to give Haig the best field positioning.
"I sure as hell wasn't thinking about Virginia Tech at that point," Holliday said. "I've got confidence in Haig if it's inside the 25 that he can make it."
And when the kick sailed through with plenty of room to spare, it touched off a celebration that spilled off the Herd sideline and onto FAU's field. It was a significant win for Marshall, making it the only team left in Conference USA's East Division to be undefeated in conference play. The Herd is looking down at all of their East foes.
Holliday said no one deserved the opportunity more than Haig, who battled through back problems all last season. He admitted after the 2012 Houston game - where he kicked another game-winner - that his back spasms were so bad that he needed treatment several times a week and needed muscle relaxers in order to kick.
"He's a great kid and a tough kid," Holliday said. "He's a kid where you talk about going in a foxhole with, I'll crawl in a foxhole with Haig, and he sure deserved it after the adversity he faced down in Blacksburg."
Haig's teammates agree that he earned the opportunity and the praise that came with his success. Tight end Gator Hoskins said they see Haig's toughness every day.
"Every day in practice he goes hard," Hoskins said. "He's one of the leaders on the team and he got his chance and won us the game. He's a tough guy. Every day, Coach talks about Justin Haig. That just shows what he's been doing all season."
That he did it on his home turf made it even sweeter. Haig said his high school, American Heritage, sat in Delray Beach, just a few miles away from FAU's stadium. He figures he had about 25 people from his home town in the stands cheering him on. At 5-foot-8, he was far from the biggest player on the field, but had no problem in the biggest moment.
"People tend to look at people and say, 'Oh, he's short,' or 'He doesn't have a strong leg,'" Haig said. "I personally didn't get recruited by FAU because I was ... short? I don't know. But there's more to football."
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.