Herd keeps its bowl hopes alive
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Forty-two years and three days after the Marshall plane crash, a kicker wearing No. 23 had the winning field goal to give the Thundering Herd a 44-41 victory over Houston.
And it so happens that the present-day No. 23, Justin Haig, formed a bond of sorts with Marcelo Lajterman, the No. 23 of the 1970 team, at the annual memorial ceremony. This week, brother Mo Lajterman gave an emotional speech on the Memorial Student Center plaza.
"I was at the ceremony on Wednesday, and I was fortunate enough to talk to Marcelo's brothers," Haig said. "It was an honor meeting them and hearing the story about Marcelo. I couldn't have picked a better week to get a game-winning field goal."
Haig booted a career-long 45-yard field goal not once but twice, with the second one counting with 7 seconds left. Houston coach Tony Levine called a timeout just before the snap on the first attempt, which seemingly grazed the crossbar on its way over.
The second attempt was stronger, but still didn't clear by much. Had the attempt come from 46 yards, the ball might have hit the crossbar and this wild game would have gone to overtime.
As it was, Marshall (5-6, 4-3 Conference USA) remains alive for a bowl bid and Houston clinched a losing season despite erasing a 38-17 deficit in the second half.
"I was confident. I felt that was borderline his range," said Herd coach Doc Holliday. "He's had some back issue that he struggled with. I'm not going to sit here and tell you I knew he was going to make it, but I like what he's all about, I like his mental toughness. You get in that situation, he's the guy you want kicking that game-winning field goal."
The field goal was the Herd's first late-game-winning kick in years - it may go all the way back to Willy Merrick in 1992 - and it allowed the Herd to avoid losing four home games in a season for the first time in Joan C. Edwards Stadium history.
It capped off a game in which Marshall rolled up 665 total yards, Rakeem Cato threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns and Kevin Grooms rushed for 155 yards, including a spectacular 69-yard touchdown late in the first half.
The Herd survived yielding 282 total yards in the second half, allowing a Houston team without its star running back (and using its backup quarterback) to tie the game twice. That QB, Crawford Jones, threw for 316 yards and five touchdowns, four in the second half.
But the Herd defense slowed down Jones and company one last time, allowing only a Matt Hogan 28-yard field goal. After allowing a 15-yard pass from Jones to Ronnie Williams on third-and-13, the Herd halted the Cougars on their 11-yard line.
That came with 1:18 left. Hogan, one of the better kickers in C-USA, inexplicably hit the kickoff out of bounds, putting the Herd on its 35 to start its winning drive. Cato had failed on late drives against Ohio and Tulsa, but came up big this time.
Two plays on that drive were huge. On third-and-5, Cato hooked up with Tommy Shuler for 7 yards, and then ran 16 yards up the middle to the Houston 37. He hit Shuler for 9 yards, bounced the second-down pass and threw the ball away on third, setting up Haig's kick.
There was no indication the game would come down to that, other than previous experience. Two weeks ago, Marshall couldn't hold a 31-7 lead and needed a late score to subdue Memphis 38-28.
It started the same way Saturday, with the Herd taking a 31-10 halftime lead. Cato threw touchdown passes of 19 yards to Antavious Wilson, 5 yards to Shuler and the best-looking pass of the day, a 46-yard strike to Davonte Allen.
Houston scored on a 3-yard pass from Jones to Shane Ros and Hogan's 32-yard field goal with 1:55 left. At 24-10, that gave the Herd plenty of time to score again - and for Grooms to hit the highlight reel.
On third-and-6, Cato was chased out of the pocket by the oft-gambling Cougars. After moving left, he finally looked right and fired the ball across the field to Grooms. The freshman took the throw, got behind blockers and bounced toward Cato's side, then outran the Houston defense down the left sideline.
Cato was mildly disappointed that the pass was slightly backward and therefore an official running play, but he certainly enjoyed it.
"I was back just watching, relaxing," Cato said. "Should have had some popcorn. It was amazing."
Cato scored on a 5-yard run in the third quarter, but that was the only time the Herd crossed the goal line in the second half - that in spite of gaining 282 yards and going 8 of 12 on third downs.
The trouble began on Marshall's first possession after halftime. Cato threw his second interception, taken by Adrian McDonald at the Houston 7 and returned 32 yards.
Houston scored on the next possession, thanks to a miraculous fourth-and-1 conversion from the Marshall 22. Jones fumbled the snap, picked it up, ran a few steps and just heaved a skyward prayer, a ball that was caught by Deontay Greenberry on the sidelines at the Marshall 8-yard line.
After Cato's touchdown run, the Cougars hit Marshall with a "Music City Miracle" lateral on the kickoff return, with Kenneth Farrow taking it and running 60 yards to the Herd 19. On the next play, Shane Ros was untouched on a 19-yard touchdown pass.
Early in the fourth quarter, Xavier Maxwell scored on a 58-yard bubble screen and Greenberry tied it at 38 with a 7-yard TD reception. Marshall then drove 73 yards on 14 plays, only to settle for a Haig 26-yard field goal and a 41-38 lead with 5:44 left. The Cougars tried to go ahead and run down the clock, but came up short on both goals.
"The way that game was at halftime, we have to finish it," Holliday said. "Bottom line is we won the game. The seniors went out the right way."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.