MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - The components of the Marshall University football team that pushed it to the top of the Conference USA East Division standings sent it sliding back closer to the rest of the back Thursday night.
The Thundering Herd's defense and special teams - both crucial in its win over Florida Atlantic - did it in against Middle Tennessee State in a 51-49 loss at Floyd Stadium. Marshall allowed a season high in both yards and points, while special teams turnovers created problems early.
With the loss, Marshall (4-3, 2-1 C-USA) falls from the top of the East. East Carolina, idle this week, sits at 3-1 in the conference.
"They made one play better than us," a visibly frustrated quarterback Rakeem Cato said. "That's all I can say. They made one play better than us."
It looked like the Herd might pull it out after Essray Taliaferro's touchdown with 2:29 left the game made it 49-45 in favor of Marshall. But MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore led the Blue Raiders on a 79-yard touchdown drive, hitting Tavarres Jefferson on a nine-yard pass as time ran out for the win.
The Herd defense gave up 585 yards Thursday - 308 on the ground and 277 through the air. Its previous season high in yards allowed was 395 against Florida Atlantic. Its previous season high in points allowed was 34 in a loss to Ohio.
"You can't pin it on coaches and you can't pin it on players," linebacker Evan McKelvey said. "You have to pin it on all of us as a team. We made mistakes and that cost us."
A glaring example of the Herd's woes in both departments came in the third quarter. Punter Tyler Williams went low to catch a snap and his knee hit the turf, giving Middle Tennessee (4-4, 2-2 C-USA) the ball at Marshall's 47. The Blue Raiders could get only 27 yards, but took nearly four minutes off the clock in 13 plays before kicking a field goal to make it a two-score game with 3:54 left in the third.
Marshall responded with a special-teams bright spot - an 81-yard Deandre Reaves kickoff return that put the Herd on the Blue Raiders 17 - and Rakeem Cato hit Tommy Shuler for a six-yard score to cut Middle Tennessee's lead to three points. The Blue Raiders hit back with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, ending in quarterback Logan Kilgore's six-yard pass to Corey Carmichael to make it 45-35. That was Middle Tennessee's fourth of five scoring drives of the game of at least 71 yards.
The Herd put itself in an early hole thanks to a growing problem this season, special teams miscues. With the game tied 7-7 late in the first quarter, Alex Bazzie blocked Chris Brown into punter Tyler Williams. Brown blocked the punt, scooped it up and ran three yards for a touchdown to give Middle Tennessee a 14-7 lead. It was the second blocked punt returned for a touchdown against Marshall this season. The first came in the first quarter of the Herd's loss to Virginia Tech.