CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Through 14 games of a college football season, there are a handful of events that can shape its outcome. A few plays - a bounce of the ball one way or the other, a zig rather than a zag - can mean the difference between elation and despair.
Below, in order, are the three events that molded Marshall's 2013 football season into one of its best in recent history. They're not all flashy. They're not the most obvious. They're not even all happy memories for Thundering Herd fans. Yet they are the most important in the Herd's renaissance.
3. James Rouse's first play from scrimmage - After such a dismal 2012 season on defense, the Herd figured that unit's resurrection would come with Marques Aiken as an anchor of the defensive line. That is, until Marshall announced the day before spring practice began that Aiken had left the program and he turned up at the University of Cincinnati.
That left a pretty big hole in the trenches. Rouse was ready to fill it, but no one knew how effective he'd be, considering he'd spent most of the previous two seasons on the shelf with back and Achilles tendon injuries. In his first game back against Miami (Ohio), he pulled down a ball-carrier behind the line of scrimmage, the first of his team-high 14 tackles for loss this year.
Yet, as important as those 14 tackles for loss were, another 14 - the total games he played in 2013 - was just as crucial. He showed that not only could he dominate, but he could stay healthy as well. And honorable mention on this list of important events goes to Rouse's announcement that he'll return in 2014, fortifying a defensive front that needs some senior leadership.
2. Gator Hoskins' 28-yard catch and run in the Military Bowl - Many folks will point toward Hoskins and Marshall's last touchdown of the game, an eight-yarder that set the final score against Maryland, as the back-breaking play of that game. Actually, it was the play just before that which slammed the door in the Terrapins' face.
With Marshall on the Terps' 36 at third and 11 with about four minutes remaining, Maryland still had a little hope. It trailed 24-20 and if the Terrapins could hold the Herd to a long field goal try, they still had plenty of time to either tie or take the lead. When quarterback Rakeem Cato found Hoskins on that third-down play, though, the Terps' dreams were obliterated. That's because Hoskins obliterated four tacklers on his way down the field.
The senior dragged two defenders about seven yards - and dragged most of the fight out of Maryland - before he finally was gang-tackled at the Maryland 8. After that, the touchdown was elementary.
1. Middle Tennessee's last-second game-winning touchdown - OK, l know what you're asking right now. How could a play so spirit-crushing be considered the most important in Marshall's season?