Nov. 22, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – In the historic former home of the Iron Bowl, Marshall football needed to steel itself.
The Thundering Herd, piling up plenty of yards but failing to get into that 10-yard expanse beyond the goal line enough, needed to turn to defense to keep its unbeaten season and major bowl hopes alive on a sunny Saturday at Legion Field.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday often talks about how defense wins championships. Against emotional and resilient UAB, defense won a game that paved the way to a Conference USA championship game host role that is all but guaranteed, as the Herd escaped with a 23-18 victory.
"The defense won the game; they won it for us," Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato said.
Marshall defensive end Arnold Blackmon forced a fumble from Blazers quarterback Cody Clements and the Herd’s other senior end, Ra’Shawde Myers, grabbed the football that bounced right to him, reversing MU fortunes for a five-point lead with 7:35 to play.
Big play? Sure.
It may not have been the biggest for the Herd, however. A field-position reversing, 34-yard punt by Tyler Williams to the UAB half-yard line three plays prior to the Myers’ score was Holliday’s idea of the game’s biggest play.
Another candidate was to follow. The Blazers (5-6, 3-4) refused to wilt, and behind the churning legs of bullish back Jordan Howard, UAB drove 17 plays in 6:39 to the Herd 10.
On fourth-and-1, with Howard making his 39th carry of the game with a direct snap in the Wildcat formation, Marshall middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes sniffed out the play and stuffed it with 56 seconds left.
That noise you heard was Herd Nation exhaling.
"Sometimes throughout the year, you’ve got to grind one out, man, and that’s the definition of that right there, grinding one out," Holliday said of his 11-0 team (7-0 C-USA). "You don’t like ‘em that way, but at the end of the day, I’m proud of the way the football team found a way to win, and that’s all that matters. That’s all that matters at the end of the day."
About an hour after the Herd survived with a very different game than it had played in a dominating season, host Old Dominion topped C-USA West Division leader Louisiana Tech (7-4, 6-1) in overtime, 30-27.
The Bulldogs’ loss keeps Rice (7-4, 5-2) in play for the West title, with Tech and the Owls meeting next Saturday in Ruston, La., for the right to play Marshall in the Dec. 6 C-USA title game. Even should the Herd fall in the Friday noon kickoff to Western Kentucky (6-5, 3-4), Holliday’s team should still have the championship host role, either via head-to-head tiebreaker (over Rice) or through computer ranking comparison with Tech. The official word will come from the C-USA office next weekend.
Against improved UAB – the Blazers can become bowl-eligible for the first time in a decade by winning next Saturday at Southern Miss – Marshall lost two touchdowns on a holding penalty and a Devon Johnson fumble, and Justin Haig missed a 23-yard field goal attempt.
Holliday pointed out that if 14 points had been scored on those drives to go with 515 yards total offense, the tenor of the postgame interviews would have been much different.
As it turned out, the Herd offensive line struggled mightily, as UAB’s three-man defensive front troubled Marshall, messed with the cadence and goaded the Herd front five into penalties and low snaps from center Chris Jasperse.
It didn’t help that starting right guard Michael Selby left the game for good very early with a right ankle injury, and finished the day on crutches. Cato said UAB "probably blitzed on every pass play we ran. Every play … I don’t remember that happening before."
Cato threw for two touchdowns – one to Tommy Shuler and another on a carom to Angelo Jean-Louis – but he was under pressure throughout. And although Johnson had his ninth 100-yard rushing game of the season with 171 (including a career-long 75-yarder) and Shuler caught 10 passes for 132 yards – both season highs for the senior from Miami – the Herd offense couldn’t find the end zone as it usually does.
The game changed with UAB up 18-17 when Cato threw back-to-back incompletions and then was sacked for a third time to set up a fourth-and-16 at the Blazers’ 35 with 8:40 left.
That’s a 52-yard field goal … too long for a Herd try … but Williams lofted one of the shortest quality punts of his three-year career and Marshall downed it inside the 1 with 8:20 to go.
On third and 10 from the one-foot line, Clements rolled slightly right to pass. As he cocked his right arm, Blackmon flicked the ball from the Blazer QB’s paw. Myers was right there, fielding the ball on one hop to put the Herd in front. A two-point conversion pass failed.
"That’s all Arnold," Myers said. "He made a great pass rush, he got around the corner and it was kind of a look-what-I-found-type play for me. He knocked it out … It bounced up and came right into my hands. It was a good pass rush by him."
It was Marshall’s second defensive TD of the season – cornerback Corey Tindal had a pick-six at FIU – and the 23-18 lead was brought about by clutch plays by Williams, Blackmon and Myers … "the kind of plays you make when you need to make ‘em," said Holmes, whose biggest of his 13 tackles was still to come.
"It was like, ‘By any means necessary, make a play,’" Blackmon said of his loose ball creation. "I saw the ball hanging out and I was going to wrap around his body, and he eventually kind of drew back to let it go, and it was just great timing.
"He was hauling it back. … When he kind of reared back (to throw) it … I’m pretty sure he was about to let it go and was coming with some force forward and I was able to get there."
The Herd knew what was coming on the subsequent series; it just had to stop it. The Marshall defense already had taken UAB’s most significant playmaker – speedy receiver and return man J.J. Nelson – out of the game. The rangy senior had only one catch for 10 yards (on the Blazers’ second series of the game) and just 16 return yards on two punts.
UAB tight end Kennard Backman (7 receptions, 70 yards) was trouble throughout for Marshall, but more so was the 6-foot-1, 224-pound Howard, whose 39 carries were the fourth-most for a Herd opponent in history, and the most since John Settle of Appalachian State ran 43 times for 193 yards in 1986.
On the final UAB drive that started at its 25, Howard carried 11 times in 17 plays, with his relief, D.J. Vinson getting three rushes. Howard was up to 169 yards for the game when on that fourth-and-1 at the MU 10, Holmes forced a 1-yard loss.
"He’s a big strong dude, we just needed to wrap him up and sometimes we didn’t," Holmes said of Howard. "The game got kind of scary and when we knew we stopped him, it was a big, big-time relief for us."
It kept alive a special season.
"That punt down there (to the half-yard line), that was huge," Holliday said. "The defense went in and got the touchdown and stood up and made a couple of plays. It’s obvious we didn’t play as well as we have all year, but we found a way to win. That’s the only thing that matters. We’re 11-0, and we’re happy to be there.
"I’ve said a lot of times, it’s hard to go 11, 12, 13 games in your season and not have to grind one out. I’ve never had that. When I was at the University of Florida (as an assistant coach) and we won a national championship, we had to block a field goal against a not-very-good South Carolina team (17-16 win in November 2006) … "You know what? It’s going to happen. Teams that go undefeated find a way. They have to grind some out during the year. This was our day and hopefully we won’t have that again."
Holliday was asked about the Herd’s snubbing in the CFP weekly rankings. He stuffed that like Holmes did Howard.
"There are a lot of people out there who think we’re a really good football team," Holliday said. "I know a lot of people do. We try not to concern ourselves right now with what the College Football Playoff committee -- or whatever you call that deal -- thinks of us.
"What’s important is where we are Dec. 7, when they make that final decision … This is all about winning. I’ve coached football for a long time, and I’ve never heard of a good loss. It’s all about winning and losing.
"All we can control is to keep winning. And if we keep winning, we think at the end of the day, we’ll be fine."