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Marshall notebook: Smiles all around after Herd says 'Cheese'

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall's Devon Johnson had an unlikely three-touchdown game Friday, two scored out of an unlikely formation.

The burly 6-foot-1, 240-pound sophomore from Richland, Va., received his first career carry with 4:48 left in the first quarter, and it was something no one outside the Thundering Herd camp expected.

Generally used as a tight end, Johnson lined up in the backfield - not as a fullback as you might suspect, but a tailback. The fullback? Blake "Big Cheese" Brooks, the 302-pound junior lineman from South Charleston High.

Herd coaches call it the "Cheese formation," and they were waiting to spring it at the right time - like first-and-goal at the East Carolina 2-yard line with the score 3-0.

"We had it for a couple weeks. [Players] were on me, wanting to run it at FIU," said coach Doc Holliday. "I said, 'No, let's keep that for East Carolina.' It helped us [to] get big Devon Johnson with 'Cheese,' we call it our 'Cheese package.' We got 'Cheese' in there, that's our big, fat guard."

Holliday backtracked on that one: "He's not fat anymore, he's about three [hundred], he's skinny now," he said.

"Anyway, we've had that in, and I just think it gives us an opportunity that when we want to go get a yard, we can get a yard."

In the Herd's first drive of the second half, Johnson repeated the feat to give MU a 31-10 lead. It happened one more time, on a third-and-1 with the Herd up 52-20, and it appeared the Pirates had that play solved once and for all.

Not quite. Johnson bounced off some poor soul at the line and sped around the left side of the pile for 8 yards and a first down.

"I would hate to see Blake Brooks, 'Cheese' and Devon Johnson running at me," said center Chris Jasperse. "That's a huge package, and we took advantage of that today."

In case you think Johnson is slow, he proved otherwise late in the third quarter, when he took a Rakeem Cato pass and turned it into a 52-yard TD to make the score 45-20. He didn't barrel anyone over; instead, he outran the secondary.

He did have a 41-yard catch to his credit entering Friday's game.

"He's not slow. He's far from slow," said running back Steward Butler.

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  • Marshall's most worrisome injury came to Darryl Roberts, the cornerback who played a major role in turning the Herd's defense around. He hopped off midway through the third quarter, and later had his left ankle wrapped in ice.

    Right tackle Clint Van Horn left for a down with a cramp, but returned. The play he missed was memorable: With ECU star linebacker Derrell Johnson trying to bowl over Gage Niemeyer to get to Cato, the quarterback stepped up and threw his 52-yard TD to Devon Johnson.

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  • Essray Taliaferro's career-high 161-yard rushing game put him over the 1,000-yard mark, the first MU back to reach that since Darius Marshall ran for 1,131 in 2009. Taliaferro now has 1,006 yards in 12 games.

    Tommy Shuler's 147 receiving yards gives him 1,019, the second year in a row he his hit four digits. With two more games, he is on pace to eclipse his 1,138 of 2012. For his career, Shuler has 2,279 yards, 11th on MU's all-time list.

    More milestones:

  • Gator Hoskins caught his 26th career TD pass, tying him for third with Mike Barber.
  • Cato's 278 total yards (272 pass, 6 rush) give him 9,981, moving him past Michael Payton into third place behind Chad Pennington (13,048) and Byron Leftwich (12,084). Cato also went into third in passing yards with 9,574, behind Pennington's 13,143 and Leftwich's 11,903.
  • With Gary Thompson picking off two passes and Taj Letman one, the Herd has 17 interceptions on the season, the most since 19 in 2004. Thompson's TD return was the Herd's third, following Raheem Waiters and Monterius Lovett, and it also matched the 2004 Herd (Chris Royal, Robert Terrell, Johnathan Goddard).
  • Briefly

  • Speaking of Thompson's "pick-six," it was Marshall's fourth non-offensive touchdown of the season, giving MU a 4-3 lead in that category over opponents. Last year's margin went 9-2 against the Herd.
  • With Taliaferro topping 100 yards for the fifth time this season, MU has 10 such games, tops in C-USA.
  • MU recorded its seventh game of 200 or more rushing yards. It has outrushed 10 of its last 14 opponents, including seven of the last 10 in conference play.
  • Justin Haig's 42-yard field goal is his longest this year and third longest in his career (45 vs. Houston, 44 vs. Southern Miss, both in 2012).
  • For ECU, Justin Hardy's 10 receptions give him 105 for the season, making him the Pirates' all-time single-season receiver.
  • Pending the site of the C-USA championship game, the Herd is 6-0 at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. The last time the Herd went unbeaten at home was 2002, when it was 7-0. The Herd has won eight home games in a row dating back to an Oct. 27, 2012 loss to Central Florida, the most since the 17 of 2000-2003.
  • Marshall's seniors, honored before the game, improved to 17-6 at home over the last four seasons.
  • MU's 17 points in the first quarter are the most ECU has allowed since Nov. 5, 2011 vs. eventual C-USA champ Southern Mississippi.
  • Former MU player and state trooper Tony Bolland was honored. Also serving as game-day security for Holliday, Bolland will retire Dec. 31 with 25 years' service with the State Police. Will he spend his final day at the Liberty Bowl, also on New Year's Eve?
  • Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, or follow him at







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