MIAMI – "Black Friday" will be one of the brightest days in the Marshall University football team's recent history.
After a rough first quarter, the Thundering Herd exploded through the rest of the game, beating Florida International, 48-10, on Saturday night to set up a Friday showdown with East Carolina for the Conference USA East Division crown.
Both the Herd and Pirates are 6-1 in the conference and the winner Friday will advance to the December 7 C-USA championship. The site of that game is to be determined.
"It's what I told them in the locker room," Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said. "I said, 'Hey, guess what, guys? Ultimately, at the beginning of the year, this was your goal, at the end of the year to play for a championship. Here it is.'"
Marshall (8-3) has its first eight-win regular season since finishing 8-4 in 2003. It also is the team's first four-game winning streak since winning five in a row in 2004 and the first six-win season in conference play since the Herd joined Conference USA.
Tight end Gator Hoskins, in a return to his home state, paced the Herd with a record setting night. The Gainesville native ended with his first 100-yard receiving game, finishing with 137 yards on six catches. His three touchdown catches set the Marshall career record for touchdown catches by a tight end, and put him past Troy Brown and Aaron Dobson for fourth all-time with 25.
"It's a blessing," Hoskins said. "Those guys are some great guys to come through Marshall, so it's just a blessing."
It took the Herd 15 minutes of game time to get rolling, though. Through a combination of a struggling offense and one so-so defensive drive, the Panthers ended the first quarter with a lead for the first time all season. Austin Taylor's 43-yard field goal to cap an eight-play, 49-yard opening drive gave FIU a 3-0 advantage. The Herd gained just 57 yards in the first quarter as quarterback Rakeem Cato completed just three of 10 passes.
The switch flipped in the second quarter, though. The Herd scored three touchdowns in the second and went into halftime up 20-3. Two came on Cato touchdown passes, the 29th straight game that he's thrown at least one. The first was a 25-yarder to Hoskins and the second was a 21-yarder to Tommy Shuler. In between those two scores, Steward Butler raced 71 yards for a touchdown.
The Herd pushed the lead to 34-3 on two more Cato touchdown passes to Hoskins before the Panthers (1-10, 1-6 C-USA) broke into the end zone in the fourth quarter. E.J. Hilliard found Ya'Keem Griner for a 10-yard touchdown. Then Marshall tacked on two more touchdowns via backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel – a 45-yard run and a 40-yard pass to Justin Hunt.
Cato threw for 241 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions on 15-of-31 passing Saturday night. In his last four games, Cato has thrown for 1,235 yards and 17 touchdowns against just one interception. Frohnapfel led Marshall in rushing with 78 yards and a touchdown on four carries, while Butler added 76 yards and a touchdown on four carries. Shuler caught six passes for 74 yards and a score and became the first Herd player to record two 80-catch seasons.
Marshall's defense held FIU to 264 total yards – 97 on the ground and 167 in the air on 15-of-29 passing. Hilliard accounted for all those, throwing a touchdown and an interception to Darryl Roberts.
– Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.r...@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.