HUNTINGTON - After giving up fourth downs in almost every manner against a nothing-to-lose Memphis team, after having its offense on the sidelines for long stretches, after watching 24-point lead melt to three, Marshall finally did something about it.
A 28-yard touchdown pass from Rakeem Cato to one of Aaron Dobson's understudies, Davonte Allen, and a monster sack by Cortez Carter allowed the Thundering Herd to slip out with a 38-28 win over the Tigers Saturday. A crowd announced at 22,041 attended at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
As unattractive as it seemed on a cloudy, occasionally drizzly afternoon, the win keeps Marshall (4-5, 3-2 Conference USA) in the bowl derby, with a trip to two-win Alabama-Birmingham on tap next week.
Rakeem Cato went 34 of 44 for 341 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptiona. His third touchdown, a 9-yarder to freshman fullback Devon Johnson, gave Marshall a 31-7 lead midway through the third quarter and triggered the sense of an impending rout.
But an onside kick, a fake punt and other strange twists later, the Herd was hanging by a 31-28 thread with 9:56 to go. Much like Marshall's 23-22 win last year over the Tigers, it was enough to make a Herd fan turn green - and not with school spirit.
Having played just three of the previous 32 snaps, the Herd offense responded, with a little help. That came on third-and-3, when Memphis cornerback Bakari Hollier was flagged for interfering with Antavious Wilson on an apparent incomplete pass. On the next play, Kevin Grooms blew through a hole for 28 yards, putting Marshall in business on the Memphis 28-yard line.
Four plays later, on fourth-and-6 from the Tigers 28, Marshall coach Doc Holliday passed on a field-goal attempt and Cato found Allen down the left sideline for the touchdown. Allen was pushed out of bounds and came back in, as he is allowed.
He and Demetrius Evans, who caught a 25-yard TD pass early in the third quarter, replaced Dobson, who was injured on the very first play from scrimmage.
"They had to [step up], and it was great to see," said Holliday. "A lot of times you get put in that situation with the young kids thrown into the fire and they don't respond. Davonte made the biggest play of the game with that catch where he was pushed out of bounds and did a nice job of getting back in, and went up at the highest point and made the catch. He's going to be a good player."
Memphis (1-8, 1-4) refused to go away, crossing midfield on Jacob Karam's 8-yard pass to tight end Alan Cross on fourth-and-6. That was the Tigers' sixth straight successful fourth down try, including a 61-yard jump pass executed by punter Tom Hornsey.
The Tigers picked up one more first down before the Herd finally stopped them. First, the Tigers slowed themselves down again, committing their 16th penalty of the game on a third-and-2 false start from the MU 26. The Tigers' 131 penalty yards were no small factor in the contest.
"I know it's a lack of discipline," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente. "It's one of the things that this program will be built on, being disciplined."
On third-and-7, Karam went long for Keiwone Malone near the goal line, but Derrick Thomas and Okechukwu Okoroha knocked the ball loose. That brought on fourth down, a situation Herd fans had grown to dread.
But not this time. Coming from the weak side, Carter screamed in untouched on a delayed blitz, dumping Karam on his keister and ending the Tigers' final threat with 2:38 left. From there, Steward Butler rushed for two first downs and the Herd took two knees.
"You have to finish. We finished at Southern Miss," Holliday said. "We finished out here against Western Carolina, but we didn't finish it the way we need to finish it. I knew going into the game that, offensively, we weren't going to get as many shots, by design."