Marshall football: Receivers finally meet high expectations
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The Marshall football team's outside receivers knew many eyes would be upon them this season.
Outsiders would look at the size of some of them and the speed of others and expect effective performances. Yet through most of the season, those eyes looked at the stat sheet and wondered where those performances were.
Thundering Herd fans got what they were looking for from that group against Southern Mississippi. Outside receivers accounted for three of the Herd's six touchdown passes in the 61-13 win and they'll be called upon to keep that up as Marshall hosts the University of Alabama at Birmingham at noon Saturday (with the game broadcast on Comcast Sports South).
"It was something that we needed as a receiving corps," senior receiver Devon Smith said. "People had been ... I don't want to say they were pointing a finger, but they were waiting for the outside (receivers) to do something."
The outside receivers' breakthrough came with Smith, the Herd's most reliable receiver outside tight end Gator Hoskins and slot receiver Tommy Shuler, mostly out of the picture.
Smith provided the outside wideouts' first big play of the game, catching a 58-yard bomb from Cato on the Herd's second scoring drive, but he tweaked a hamstring at the end of the run and left the game for a short time.
Smith returned and the hamstring was fine - evident in his 55-yard punt return later in the game - but caught just two more passes Saturday. But that let other receivers step up in his place.
Craig Wilkins' only catch of the game was a 15-yard touchdown from Cato, while Davonte Allen had his breakout game of the season. Allen caught three passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns, a 23-yard first-quarter strike from Cato and a 40-yarder in the fourth quarter from backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel.
Those touchdown catches were Allen's first of the season, and came a lot later in the year than many anticipated. Observers thought the 6-foot-2, 203-pound redshirt sophomore would have played a bigger part in the passing game before now, but Smith said everyone's happy Allen finally broke through.
"It's all just a brotherhood," Allen said. "Just go out there and go play. Like I told Davonte, I had a big catch, but it was his time to shine. It was his time to shine and Craig's time to shine. All of us are supporting each other."
The group has stayed in each other's corners, offering encouragement as they tried to carry on the tradition that graduated seniors Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson - both in the Herd's top 10 in career receiving yards - laid out before them. But rather than constantly reminding themselves about what came before, Allen said the Marshall outside receivers focused on the present.
"We just focused on ourselves and winning those one-on-ones," Allen said. "We weren't even thinking about last year. Last year was good, but we're focusing on ourselves right now."
Their success opened things up for the receivers like Hoskins and Shuler who do their work underneath and across the middle. With the outside receivers needing to be accounted for, it kept Southern Miss' defense from double-teaming and bracketing Shuler and Hoskins. The two pulled in the other three of Marshall's six scoring receptions.
"If you've got outside guys doing well as well, everybody's in man now and everyone has one man on them, and I'll take my guys against anyone on one-on-ones," Smith said. "The outside guys winning make it easier on the inside guys."
Marshall's outside receivers accounted for 172 of the Herd's 332 passing yards and averaged 24.6 yards per catch. It helped the Herd to its most potent offensive game of the season and gives the group momentum heading into Saturday's game, where Marshall has a chance at a sixth win and bowl eligibility.
"It was a great feeling," Allen said. "This season has been a humbling experience, but finally we've gotten it back rolling."
* * *
CATO WAS named the Conference USA offensive player of the week following his Southern Miss game performance. He tied his career best with five touchdown passes, four of those coming in the first quarter of Marshall's win over the Golden Eagles. It is Marshall's first football player of the week award this season.
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.