Springboard into 2014
ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Down the homestretch of this season, coach Doc Holliday kept publicly challenging his Marshall seniors to do one thing.
Play your best football. Ever.
Somebody played the best football of his life for this 2013 Thundering Herd team, at least in six of its last seven games. That stretch was highlighted by a 59-28 pummeling of East Carolina and the last effort, its 31-20 win over Maryland in the Military Bowl.
On Friday, the Thundering Herd seniors went above and beyond the call of duty to deliver the program's first win over an Atlantic Coast Conference team since 1999.
In a stadium that honors those who gave all, Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, such an effort was appropriate.
The best example among the seniors may have been that of Gage Niemeyer. The 6-foot-6 tackle was sent in after the Herd's first possession and played the last 76 snaps at right tackle - not his familiar side.
Niemeyer had become the odd man out on the first-string offensive line, nudged to the bench after Clint Van Horn was raised to starting right tackle and Garrett Scott moved to the left side. Van Horn injured himself on the Herd's third play Friday and did not return. So Niemeyer, who played 20 snaps in the last four games, had to step in.
Niemeyer, along with fellow seniors Scott and Alex Schooler, must have done all right. Quarterback Rakeem Cato was not sacked the rest of the game and the Herd's tailbacks averaged 4.85 yards per carry, both keys to a 475-total-yard attack.
Jeremiah Taylor fulfilled his vow to play after missing the last 10 games with a fractured vertebra. The defensive end had three tackles, splitting a tackle for loss. Monterius Lovett finished his career with three tackles and a pass breakup, coming against the Herd-killing slant route. Devon Smith had five receptions for 54 yards, plus a 16-yard punt return.
At the defensive tackles, James Rouse and Brandon Sparrow eagerly traded blows with the Maryland line. Rouse was the undisputed winner of his battles, and sacked mobile Terrapin quarterback C.J. Brown twice.
But Rouse will be around for a sixth year. Defensive end Alex Bazzie will not, and his motor never stopped in his return to his home state. He had seven tackles, including the other sack on Brown and four tackles for loss.
Essray Taliaferro, playing near his Washington home, scored the go-ahead touchdown, a hard-fought 7-yarder with 12:05 left. He had 81 yards on 19 carries, and his 14-yard run in the first quarter put the Herd on the Maryland 1-yard line to set up the game's first touchdown.
So who's left? Gator Hoskins, who scored his 14th and 15th touchdowns of his scintillating senior season. He set up his second touchdown, the one that put the game away, with a 28-yarder on third-and-11.
On that play, he had the third-and-11 conquered, but he wasn't done - he dragged two defenders pretty much the rest of the distance. It symbolized the efforts of a senior class Holliday had come to love.
"We wanted to accomplish two things with this bowl," Holliday said. "Number one, send the seniors out the right way. We have a great group of seniors - we don't have a lot of them. I have a great group of guys including Baz and Gator [sitting] there that played their best football their senior year, and Taliaferro and a couple of them."
But Bazzie said the effort and the victory wasn't just about him and his fellow seniors. He called it his final opportunity to give back to his younger teammates.
"I just knew it was the last go-around for me, but it was a new beginning for the underclassmen," Bazzie said. "And I just wanted them to understand that this carries over into the next season. You show a great performance, you go on to the next season with confidence, with great chemistry."
And with a big senior class, both in quantity and size of achievements already recorded. You can start with Cato and receiver Tommy Shuler, throw in center Chris Jasperse, tight end Eric Frohnapfel, linebacker Jermaine Holmes and Neville Hewitt and cornerback Darryl Roberts. Oh yeah, did we mention Rouse?
This group isn't shooting for a mere 10-4 season and division championship, but Friday's result provides a solid springboard to 2014.
"We've got a great nucleus back," Holliday said. "This will help us going into the offseason, our guys will have a little bounce in their step, they'll have a lot of confidence. We've got a lot of players back.
"We've got to coach the heck out of them, because we've got a shot at being really good next year, too."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.