Marshall football: Smith's big plays played a big part in Herd win
BOCA RATON, Fla. - Marshall wide receiver/punt returner Devon Smith knew he had a big play in him. It just hadn't shown itself this season. But against Florida Atlantic on Saturday night, he produced two of the biggest plays in the Thundering Herd's 24-23 win over the Owls.
A second-quarter punt return for a touchdown and a huge catch on the Herd's game-winning drive were crucial in getting Marshall to 2-0 in Conference USA. The punt return was especially satisfying, considering he had a couple the week before against the University of Texas at San Antonio that he felt could have gone for touchdowns if he made a better cut.
The right cuts came against the Owls, and the touchdown followed.
"I've been waiting on that for a thousand years," Smith said. "I was happy to get that and get that first touchdown on the board and help my team win.
"It was wide open," he added. "I just had to make a couple guys miss and that's what I did. It's my last year. I'm just in there watching film, working hard and trying to see what I can do to find holes and make guys miss."
That breakthrough return came on a low, line-drive punt that Smith corralled near the sideline at the Marshall 23. He kept sprinting toward that sideline, then up the field, getting a couple of blocks to spring him free. He then turned back to the middle of the field and dashed toward the other sideline, diving into the front right corner of the end zone for a 77-yard score.
"That was huge," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "Adam Fuller's done a great job with that punt return and we're getting better and better at that. He's getting better and better and getting more confident."
Smith, listed at 5-foot-7 on Marshall's roster, came up big again in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Rakeem Cato lofted a pass toward him from the Marshall 39, and Smith fought off FAU corner Cre'von LeBlanc for the catch and a 35-yard gain. That got Marshall into field goal range and allowed Justin Haig to kick the 41-yard game winner.
"It was a do-or-die situation," Smith said. "I want to be the guy to help my team win. I want to be the guy when they look at me, they say, 'Good play.'"
MARSHALL'S DEFENSE didn't have as dominating a performance as it had in its first six games this season - FAU gained 395 total yards, 208 on the ground and 187 through the air - but Holliday said a lot of that came from the Herd's offensive ineffectiveness for most of the game. The Herd gained a season-low 355 yards, and 155 of those yards came on Marshall's final two scoring drives.
"I thought our defense played pretty well in the first half," Holliday said. "A lot of that was on our offense. We had a lot of three-and-outs, not getting too many at-bats and giving their offense too many at-bats."
Yet some of it came from the dual threat of FAU quarterback Jaquez Johnson. The sophomore threw for 187 yards and led all rushers Saturday with 78 yards on 17 carries. The 6-1, 225-pounder presented a sizeable challenge, linebacker Jermaine Holmes said.
"From what I had seen on film, I knew he was big," said Holmes, who finished with a team-high eight tackles (seven solo) and an interception. "But when I saw him in person, I was like, dang, he's a big boy. I respect him a lot. He runs and I can hit."
THE HERD needed 10 points in the final quarter to win the game, and most of those came from a gritty catch and run from tight end Gator Hoskins.
The Herd was facing fourth down and five on FAU's 41 with about seven minutes left in the game. Cato found Hoskins on a short route that Hoskins kept alive, breaking tackles and beating other defenders into the end zone.
"When I came out of the break, I was open," Hoskins said. "The ball was coming and when I caught it I was just thinking run, just run, and I found a way into the end zone. After I caught it, the only thing in my mind was score."
The touchdown was Hoskins' 18th of his career, which put him in a tie for 10th all-time in Marshall's record books with Poole, LaVorn Colclough and Antavious Wilson.
AFTER DOMINATING the running game in its first two contests, the Herd had another so-so performance on the ground against FAU, rushing for 139 yards on 34 carries. Cato and Essray Taliaferro tied for the team lead with 45 yards each, Cato on seven carries and Taliaferro on 10.
Holliday said one key member of the running backs, Kevin Grooms, is still getting over a high ankle sprain. Grooms rushed for 42 yards on 14 carries.
"Grooms, I want him to be healthy and he's not," Holliday said. "Another week and a half and I think he'll be good to go."
One very notable absence Saturday was sophomore Steward Butler, who did not make the trip despite entering the game as Marshall's second-leading rusher.
"I left him home this week because I wasn't real happy with him," Holliday said, "but he's fine."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.