Marshall football: Third down stops key for Herd
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- At every third down Marshall's defense forced against Ohio on Saturday night, the Thundering Herd fans bellowed, their voices filling Joan C. Edwards Stadium, exhorting the Herd defense while trying to rattle the Bobcats offense.
Yet in crucial situations, especially in the first half, it was the pocket of Ohio fans cheering once third down was over.
The Herd's inability to force Ohio to punt in the second quarter allowed the Bobcats to extend drives and turn a two-touchdown deficit into a three-point lead at halftime. It cut into the Herd's momentum and Ohio was able to stay close enough through the rest of the game to snatch away a 27-24 victory.
"Defensively, we were a little bit on our heels that first half," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "I thought we made some adjustments at halftime and defensively, we came out and played well in the second half and made some critical stops. We just couldn't get off the field."
At no time was that truer than the second quarter, when the Bobcats rattled off scoring drives of 16, 11 and 13 plays that turned what looked like a blowout in the first quarter into a nail-biter at the half. Ohio's 16-play drive started near the end of the first quarter, included four third downs the Bobcats converted to first downs and ended with Tyler Tettleton's six-yard touchdown throw to Troy Hill.
On the next drive, Ohio faced a third and nine on Marshall's 32 and Tettleton hit Matt Waters on a 22-yard pass.
The Bobcats got as close as Marshall's 5 and had to settle for a field goal. Ohio converted two third downs on the next drive, though one was a Marshall gift. The Bobcats faced third-and-6 on their own 19, and Keith Baxter was flagged for pass interference. A five-yard Ryan Boykin rush on third-and-2 at Marshall's 40 continued that drive, which ended in Tettleton's four-yard scoring pass to Tyler Futrell.
In that second quarter, Ohio outgained Marshall 204-33, more than doubled the Herd's time of possession, converted five of six third downs and went from down 14-0 to up 17-14.
"Those third downs, we have to execute on third down," defensive end Alex Bazzie said. "We can't let a team like that, that can carry momentum at any point in time, get those big plays. Once they get those big plays, their momentum builds up."
Bazzie said the defense demanded better from itself during halftime and, for the most part, lived up to its own challenge. The Herd held Ohio to just 61 total yards in the third quarter and the Bobcats converted just one of four third downs. Marshall stayed solid in the fourth quarter, save for one heartbreaking drive.
On the drive that let the Bobcats tie the game at 24, Ohio converted two third-and-10 situations, one at its own 20 and one at its own 32. Then, on fourth-and-5 at Marshall's 27, Tettleton found Ryan Clark for a touchdown.
Bazzie said looking at the film of that drive will be a bitter pill to swallow.
"It's going to be very tough," he said. "On fourth-and-5, they had the guts to do that and did what they had to do."
Holliday gave credit to the Bobcats for those conversions. The Bobcats are eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision at converting third downs, doing it at a 56.36-percent clip.
"That's what good teams do," Holliday said. "They convert on third down. They have the quarterback and the wideouts made plays. They're a solid football team. I think at the end of the day, they'll be playing for the championship in (the Mid-American Conference).
The Marshall defense is on the other end of the spectrum. In the first three games, opponents are converting 48.84 percent of third downs against the Herd. Marshall is tied with San Diego State for 104th in the FBS in that category. Bazzie knows those numbers need to improve as Marshall enters Conference USA play at Rice at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (WCHS telecast).
"Every third down we didn't execute, for every undisciplined play we made, they executed off of it," Bazzie said. "We just have to watch the film and get better."
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MU FRESHMAN running backs Steward Butler and Kevin Grooms saw little action against the Bobcats. Butler carried the ball once for two yards, while Grooms never took the field. The two had combined for 35 carries and 159 yards in Marshall's first two games. Holliday said that as the game went on and stayed close, the offense stuck with more seasoned running backs Travon Van and Remi Watson.
"It was just the flow of the game," Holliday said. "I think we got toward the end there, there was a lot of pass (protection) and some other things that had to take place and I think (running backs coach) Jajuan (Seider) went with some of the older kids he felt a little more comfortable with as far as pass pro goes."
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HERD RECEIVER Tommy Shuler set career highs in single-game catches (13) and yards (121) against Ohio. But it's not the first time he and quarterback Rakeem Cato have had such synergy. The duo played together in youth football leagues and set records at Miami Central High.
"I just like I was finding the holes and he was hitting me," Shuler said. "I felt it was just like high school. All the overtime we've put in after practice and before practice, I just feel like it's been paying off."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.