Marshall football: Herd becomes bowl-eligible with 56-14 win over UAB
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The Marshall football team added at least one more game to its 2013 schedule Saturday afternoon.
With its 56-14 win over the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Thundering Herd reached six wins and bowl eligibility for the season. A Herd (6-3, 4-1 Conference USA) bowl would be just its third since playing in the 2004 Fort Worth Bowl, but its second in three seasons following the 2011 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
While six wins is an important milestone, Herd Coach Doc Holliday said it was just one of many the team has this season. Its goals are much loftier, with a C-USA East Division title still in play.
"I can assure you we didn't have any Gatorade baths or were dancing in the locker room because we won six games," Holliday said. "That's what we expect to do around here."
The Herd took a page out of the playbook UAB used last season in its upset win in Birmingham, rushing for 381 yards. Marshall just gained its yards on the ground in larger chunks, on the backs of a trio of 100-yard rushers, a Herd first.
Last year, the Blazers (2-7, 1-4 C-USA) averaged 4.98 yards per carry to hold on to a 38-31 win. This year, the Herd averaged 11.9 yards per carry with some big scoring runs. The first touchdown run, Essray Taliaferro's seven-yarder for the Herd's first score of the game – didn't cover a ton of ground. The second – Kevin Grooms' 71-yarder on his first carry of the game to make it 21-7 – did. Taliaferro added a 16-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and Steward Butler scored from 49 yards out in the fourth.
Butler led Marshall with 139 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, while Taliaferro rushed for 118 yards and two scores on 12 carries and Grooms ran for 108 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Quarterback Rakeem Cato chipped in with 276 yards and three touchdowns on 14-of-20 passing and also ran for a six-yard touchdown. The junior threw a touchdown each to tight end Eric Frohnapfel (39 yards), receiver Tommy Shuler (six yards) and Grooms (nine yards). Shuler caught six passes for 100 yarsd and a touchdown, his seventh career 100-yard game.
Marshall's 657 yards of total offense was the sixth-highest total in program history. It also was the fourth time that the Herd gained at least 630 yards of offense in back-to-back weeks. Marshall racked up 636 yards of total offense last week versus Southern Mississippi.
The Blazers mostly stuck with the run against Marshall, much like they did last week against Middle Tennessee, when they threw nine times and ran 56. The ratio was a little more even Saturday – 17 passes to 56 runs – and UAB relied on running backs Darrin Reaves (98 yards) and Jordan Howard (123 yards) to gain 288 yards on the ground.
But the Herd defense pounded on a pair of first-half fumbles to pull away and enjoy a comfortable three-touchdown halftime lead. The first came on the third play of the game, when Neville Hewitt forced a fumble on a Jonathan Perry sack and Brandon Sparrow recover at the Marshall 12. That led to Taliaferro's first touchdown. The second came in the second quarter. UAB had cut Marshall's lead to 28-14 on a Perry-to-Reaves touchdown throw, then blocked a 38-yard Justin Haig field goal attempt and, on the ensuing drive, got to the Herd 25. That was when Taj Letman forced a Howard fumble at the Herd 10 that Gary Thompson recovered at the 11.
With 1:36 left in the half, Cato led Marshall on a five-play, 89-yard touchdown drive highlighted by a 50-yard bomb from Cato to tight end Gator Hoskins and ending with Cato's scoring pass to Grooms.
"It's never good to turn the ball over, especially when you're driving that far," said UAB offensive lineman Cameron Blankenship. "It decreased our morale. It kind of sucked the win out of us a bit."
The Herd has a quick turnaround for its next game, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Tulsa. Marshall has never beaten the Golden Hurricane, and the players know they must if they want to move past the goal of bowl eligibility and toward the goal of a conference title.
"I haven't been focusing on being bowl eligible," Letman said. "I'm focusing on a conference championship. We're not trying to be a 6-6 'happy to be in a bowl game' type of team."
– 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.