MIAMI - After disposing of Florida International as planned, Marshall coaches and players could finally discuss the game they've been playing for all these months.
Thundering Herd vs. East Carolina, noon Friday, Joan C. Edwards Stadium, winner wins Conference USA East Division outright. From the minute the time ran out on Marshall's 48-10 thumping of FIU Saturday night, the switch flipped immediately.
"You all [media], players and everybody's been wanting to talk about next Friday for the last two weeks," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "It was concerning to me, as a football coach, having to come down here and everybody's talking to these kids about the East Carolina game, and the first time we've got the opportunity to be in the hunt this late in the championship season in 10 or 11 years, whatever's it's been.
"So finally, they can talk about it. That's what I told them in the locker room. I said, 'Hey, guess what, guys? Ultimately, at the beginning of the year it was your goal, the opportunity at the end of the year to play for a championship. Here it is.'"
The Herd (8-3, 6-1 C-USA) overcame first-quarter struggles, jumped to a 20-3 lead at the half and led 34-3 at the end of three quarters. Gator Hoskins had perhaps his most beastly game in a Marshall uniform, catching six passes for a career-high 137 yards and three touchdowns.
That accounted for most of Rakeem Cato's 241-yard production. Hoskins, the senior from Gainesville, Fla., became the all-time leader among MU tight ends in career TDs with 25, and is alone in fourth among all pass-catchers.
Sometimes it looked too easy, as the Panthers (1-10, 1-6) tried to undercut his routes without success. Then there was his best catch of the day, a 40-yarder to the FIU 15-yard line, where he stretched out with one arm and pulled the ball into his body.
"I just wanted to have a pretty catch for the [highlight] reel," Hoskins joked.
Not all of his teammates were as impressed, at least in jest.
"It was great, but I gave him a little trash talk. I told him he should have finished the play for a touchdown," said receiver Tommy Shuler.
Shuler had the other TD catch from Cato, as both were playing in their home city. Steward Butler provided his electric moment with a 72-yard touchdown run, bouncing off a couple of tacklers and wresting himself out of a shoestring tackle.
Defensively, the Herd just plain dominated after giving up a first-possession field goal.
Once the defenders got the hang of FIU's scheme and talent level, it was party time. They racked up seven sacks of quarterback E.J. Hilliard and 14 overall tackles for loss, and held FIU to 264 total yards. The Panthers converted just four of 17 third-down attempts.
Backup quarterback Jake Medlock was spared the agony of getting thrown to the FIU Stadium turf, but his leg may be sore from punting nine times.
"The D-line, they were getting good push-back," said linebacker Jermaine Holmes. "The linebackers were wanting to get in on the action and I told them at halftime they weren't going to make any more plays."
Austin Taylor's 43-yard field goal gave FIU the 3-0 lead before the Herd overcame poor field position for three second-quarter touchdowns, a 25-yard pass to Hoskins, Butler's 72-yard run and Shuler's 21-yard catch with 11 seconds left. The latter came on a 66-yard, 38-second drive that followed Darryl Roberts' interception.
Hoskins followed his highlight-reel catch with a 15-yard TD, and scored his third from 32 late in the third quarter. Cato retired as the fourth quarter started, allowing Blake Frohnapfel in on the fun - he ran 45 yards for one touchdown and threw 40 yards to Justin Hunt for another.
Hoskins' 137 yards were the most by an MU tight end since Cody Slate's 177 in the otherwise painful 2007 against New Hampshire. ... Shuler's six receptions give him 80, making him the first MU receiver to hit that mark in two different seasons. Several other great MU receivers came close, but Shuler is the first. ... Butler has six rushes of 46 or more yards, and he now has 660 yards on 65 carries - a 10.2 average. ... Is Tyler Williams back? He had four punts of 50 or more yards, one other 49. ... Cato now has thrown 52 red-zone touchdowns in his career, vs. one interception.
Marshall 0 20 14 14-48
FIU 3 0 0 7-10
FIU-FG A.Taylor 43, 11:03.
Mar-Hoskins 25 pass from Cato (Haig kick), 13:25.
Mar-Butler 72 run (kick failed), 5:42.