HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - In the 11th game of Marshall's long, twisted season, the team's acclaimed depth at running back stood its biggest test.
In the end, Kevin Grooms and Essray Taliaferro - remember him? - stood strong and ran long in the Thundering Herd's 44-41 win over Houston Saturday. That win set Marshall (5-6, 4-3) up for one last shot at a bowl game, needing a win against East Carolina (7-4, 6-1). Kickoff is at 2 p.m. Friday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
Those two essentially formed the rotation, short of diving into the pool of walk-ons or tapping fullback Devon Johnson on one of his broad shoulders.
With Tron Martinez's season prematurely ended by injury, the thinning-out began when Travon Van was moved to cornerback - and eventually into oblivion. That left the core trio of "baby backs" - Remi Watson, Grooms and Steward Butler.
Watson went down in the Herd's ill-fated ninth game, at Alabama-Birmingham, and was termed questionable Tuesday by coach Doc Holliday. Butler, who injured his left wrist and missed the Houston game, could return.
Last weekend, those injuries left Grooms and Taliaferro to bear the load of the rushing game, getting a season-high 21 and 18 carries, respectively. Taking that stat further, Grooms' 21 carries was a season high for any Herd back.
Physically, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound freshman from Hollywood, Fla., could handle the extra work. But given the season-long rotation of three backs, he simply didn't expect it.
"I kept going to the coach, and it was weird," Grooms said. "I said, 'Is it my rotation?' and he was like, 'Basically, you're the only back that we've got, so why do you keep asking me that?' "
Grooms carried his load, gaining 155 yards on those 21 carries, including that spectacular 69-yard scoring run off a cross-field lateral pass. That gave Marshall a 31-10 halftime lead, important when you consider Houston's second-half rally to tie the game.
Now, Grooms is the team's rushing leader with 732 yards on 119 carries, a 6.2 average, with eight touchdowns. He also has a touchdown among his eight receptions for 50 yards.
Perhaps more important, he has a grasp of the other intricacies of the position. Butler does too, for that matter.