GREENVILLE, N.C. - Given his long-awaited chance to be Marshall's feature back, Essray Taliaferro was grinding his way to the game of his life Friday - until his 27th and final carry.
That's when, in the second overtime, the ball squirted out of his grasp on what would have been a first-down run. East Carolina's Derrell Johnson recovered that fumble and ECU followed with a 1-yard Shane Carden touchdown run, squashing the Thundering Herd's bowl hopes 65-59 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
A crowd announced at 46,317 watched the Pirates (8-4 overall, 7-1 Conference USA) take a temporary lead in the East Division of C-USA, pending Central Florida's game today against Alabama-Birmingham. If the Knights get upset by the 3-8 Blazers, ECU will play at Tulsa for the league title next weekend.
For the Herd (5-7, 4-4), the season ended in the highest-scoring Conference USA game, beating Texas Christian's 62-55 win over Houston in 2003.
It seemed like a wacky reversal of the 2001 GMAC Bowl, that 64-61 double-overtime win over the Pirates with the approximate level of offense. On Friday, ECU and Marsahall combined for 1,188 total yards, 67 first downs and 104 points in regulation.
Taliaferro accounted for 180 of those yards, 130 on the ground and 50 on three receptions. His 1-yard touchdown run with 1:55 left gave Marshall a 52-45 lead, no small feat after the Herd fell behind 28-7 early in the second quarter.
But Carden, who went 38 of 47 for 439 yards with three touchdowns passing and three more rushing, brought the Pirates 76 yards on 11 plays to tie it. He hit Danny Webster in the back of the end zone from 6 yards with 4 seconds left.
Nobody in the Herd camp held Taliaferro responsible for the most painful fumble since Tron Martinez's in the 2010 West Virginia game. The truth is that carry would not have been needed had the Herd defense stopped a fourth-and-10 pass on the game-tying drive.
Had the Herd prevented Justin Hardy from catching that 19-yard pass, backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel would have taken a few knees and the Herd would have started bowl preparations.
"I told Tally when he fumbled, I said, 'We weren't supposed to be in that predicament anyway,' " said MU quarterback Rakeem Cato, who went out in the third quarter with a knee injury. "Game should have been over, we should have been back on our way to Huntington."
The loss took the shine off some tremendous efforts by the visiting team. Before departing, Cato went 31 of 40 for 318 yards and five touchdowns, and Frohnapfel was 12 of 15 for 101 yards with one TD. Frohnapfel also scored on a 51-yard run after a super-slick fake handoff.
Tommy Shuler caught 14 passes, breaking the Herd's 25-year-old single-season reception record. He finished with 110, passing the 106 of Mike Barber in 1987.
"It's a shame it had to end this way," said coach Doc Holliday. "They fought hard, but unfortunately we didn't get the 'W.' "
Yes, the Herd fought hard to overcome a disastrous first 18 minutes. After Cato hit Aaron Dobson on a 32-yard jump ball for an early 7-0 lead, the game went quickly south for the Herd.
Jabril Soloman beat cornerback Keith Baxter on a 59-yard bomb, and the Herd offense suffered a three-and-out and an interception, leading to TD runs by Vintavious Cooper and Carden, and a 21-7 ECU lead.
Then it got even worse for MU, as 327-pound Terry Williams blew through the middle to block a Tyler Williams punt. ECU covered the 18 yards in four plays to put the Herd down 28-7.
With Carden having his way with the Herd's defense, it looked as if Marshall could do nothing better than trade touchdowns the rest of the way. But with the game at 35-21, D.J. Hunter and the returned Devin Arrington stonewalled Cooper on fourth-and-1 near midfield.
The Herd made it 35-28 with a 19-yard Cato-to-Shuler pass with 26 seconds left in the half, a score even more critical with MU getting the ball to start the second half. Indeed, the Herd tied the game on its first possession of the third quarter, with Cato finding Antavious Wilson from 2 yards out.