Bad breaks sink Marshall
HUNTINGTON - Given two shots to establish Marshall as a Conference USA contender Saturday, quarterback Rakeem Cato and his receivers couldn't connect.
With a pounding ground game, two non-offensive touchdowns and two big fourth-down plays by its secondary, Tulsa escaped with a 45-38 victory over the Thundering Herd before 27,189 on a sun-splashed afternoon at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Cato threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns, Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson both topped 100 yards receiving and the Herd outgained the Golden Hurricane 572-340, but couldn't force overtime at the end.
"Here at Marshall, we expect to win those games," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "To get where we want to go, we've got to go beat the best team on that side of the league [West Division], and that's probably Tulsa, or Houston or whoever."
Tulsa (5-1, 3-0) gained 250 yards rushing, opting to run it 53 times in 70 plays. But Marshall (2-4, 1-1) may be been hit harder by two non-offensive touchdowns - Dwight Dobbins' 11-yard fumble recovery and Trey Watts' 95-yard kickoff return. The latter play gave the Hurricane a 37-25 lead with 5:04 left in the third quarter.
Not that the Herd didn't bounce back; it did so swiftly and surely. Barely a minute after Watts' return, Cato found Gator Hoskins down the right sideline for a 72-yard TD pass, and then hit Antavious Wilson on a 32-yard strike with 10:59 left to give Marshall a 38-37 lead. The latter score came at the end of a 99-yard drive.
But Tulsa came right back, using a 47-yard pass from Cody Green to Keyarris Garrett, who shook cornerback Keith Baxter and picked up 30-plus yards after the catch. Adding a personal foul for Derrick Thomas' horse-collar tackle, the Hurricane set up at Marshall's 7-yard line.
Green, who went just 9 of 17 for 90 yards, hit Jordan James from the 4 to give the lead back to Tulsa, and then hit Thomas Roberson on the 2-point conversion to set the final score - somewhat surprising, considering there was 8:25 left in this C-USA gunfight.
Starting from its 14, Marshall appeared up to the challenge of tying the game.
The third-down conversions were dramatic - a 20-yard pass to Aaron Dobson, a pass-interference penalty on Lowell Rose (Dobson's defender) and a leaping 8-yard catch by Wilson on a play that almost looked as if Cato was throwing it away.
But the Herd couldn't get the next third down and faced fourth-and-5 from the Tulsa 16. Cato threw to Dobson, who caught 10 passes for 128 yards, but Rose knocked it away.
Tulsa took over with 3:32 left and Marshall having just one timeout, but never came close to gaining a first down. In fact, the Hurricane came closer to allowing a defensive touchdown - Green had to scramble for an errant snap, falling on it at the 3. After a punt, Marshall took over at the Tulsa 46 with 2:13 to go.
Cato went to Wilson for 9 and Dobson for 17, but couldn't get much farther than the 20. On third-and-7, Cato threw incomplete with defensive end Jared St. John coming in fast, setting up fourth down from the Tulsa 17.
Wilson, who caught two touchdown passes, was targeted for No. 3, but Tulsa safety Demarco Nelson broke it up to seal the issue. It was the third time the Herd was stopped on downs.
"No matter what happened on the last one, you've got to play the next play," said Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship. "I think Lowell made that play - [Dobson] certainly had him on his heels, he had some bad things go against him late in the game. He had his hands full but, fortunately, we made the plays we had to make."
Wilson caught seven passes for 123 yards and Tommy Shuler caught seven, but for only 23 yards. Kevin Grooms rushed for 71 yards to lead the Herd's 169-yard ground attack. The runs and passes were balanced - 45 each way.
MU backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel even got in on the action, hitting Grooms on a screen pass to convert a third-and-11 during the 99-yard drive. Frohnapfel had to come in for one play after Cato got rung up on a sack, but did get the benefit of waiting through a television timeout.
Watts had 111 yards rushing for Tulsa and 144 more on those kickoff returns. Big Alex Singleton added 94 yards and three touchdowns, including a 48-yard first-half jaunt on a fourth-and-1 play.
That gave Tulsa a 10-3 lead in the first quarter, after the Herd defense allowed only three points on two turnovers.
"We had a guy that didn't get in the right gap at that point," Holliday said. "That was disappointing."
After the Herd was forced into a three-and-out, Singleton scored to end a 16-play, 63-yard drive to make it 17-3. When Marshall was stopped on downs at the Tulsa 26, it appeared the Hurricane could jump on the home team, much like it did in a 59-17 romp last year.
But the Herd forced a three-and-out and turned the tables quickly. Cato drove the Herd 80 yards with Grooms scoring from the 6, Okechukwu Okoroha recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and Cato hit Wilson for a touchdown from the 11. That forced a 17-all draw at the half.
Tulsa scored on the opening drive of the second half on Singleton's third TD, and then Dobbins returned a Dobson fumble 11 yards to make it 30-17. The Herd then picked up two points on a botched point-after snap when D.J. Hunter scooped up the loose ball and ran it to the opposite end zone.
The Herd then drove 84 yards, with Remi Watson's 1-yard run cutting the score to 30-25. Watts returned the next kickoff for his touchdown, setting up a fantastic finish.
And an agonizing one for the homecoming crowd.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.