HUNTINGTON — On a weekend where the Marshall Thundering Herd football team and campus pause to remember the loss of Nov. 14, 1970, when 75 persons on the Herd football charter were killed returning from a game at East Carolina, a sophomore kicker for the Herd gave Marshall a chance to go to ECU this coming Friday to keep its hopes alive for a third bowl since 2009.
Justin Haig kicked a 45-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining, as the Marshall Thundering Herd rallied for a 44-41 win over the Houston Cougars in Conference USA play from Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The Thundering Herd (5-6, 4-3 C-USA) kept their postseason hopes alive and can become bowl eligible with a win at East Carolina on Friday.
In the 42nd annual memorial service for the Southern Airways crash that claimed 37 MU players, five coaches, administrators, family and fans, the featured speaker was Mo Lajterman, the younger brother of Marshall’s 1970 kicker, Marcelo.
Haig, wearing No. 23 — the same number worn by Lajterman for the Thundering Herd, and the name of a scholarship began by his brothers, marcelo23.com at Marshall — saved the Herd’s chance for post-season by making his third field goal of the day, a career-best 45-yard kick not once, but twice.
As the Herd lined up for the kick with just :07 on the clock, Houston Coach Tony Levine took a time out just before the snap, and Haig kicked a low line drive through the uprights.
Lined up after the time out, Haig nailed the kick again, just clearing the cross bar for the 44-41 win.
His three kicks in a game were also a career best, one short of the Marshall record of four kicks in a game.
Marshall sophomore quarterback Rakeem Cato threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns, and he also added a rushing touchdown in the victory, but the Thundering Herd was almost left with a disappointing finish to the game, as Houston (4-7, 3-4 C-USA) rallied from 31-10 at the half to tie the game with 31 second half points.
The loss spoiled a terrific day from surprise Cougars' starting quarterback Crawford Jones — starting for Houston's David Piland, who started the first 10 games of the season, but did not play at all today — and Jones completed 31-of-44 passes for 316 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in the best game of the redshirt senior, former walk-on’s career (awarded a scholarship this past August).
This season, he had thrown for just 20-of-41 for 288 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
UH receivers Shane Ros and Xavier Maxwell each hauled in a pair of touchdown catches in defeat, which eliminated the Cougars from post-season play with its seventh loss, and second loss in two trips to Huntington in C-USA play.
In fact, Texas teams are 0-for-Huntington since Marshall joined Conference USA in 2005, and the Herd got off to a fast start for the first time since early in the season.
Marshall took the ball for the 16th game in a row — the nation’s longest streak of getting the kickoff to start the game — and scored on the opening drive, the first time since game three against Ohio.
Marshall drove 81 yards on 16 plays, with senior Antavious Wilson catching a 19-yard touchdown from Cato for a 7-0 Marshall lead.
After Haig tacked on three more points with a 23-yard field goal midway through the opening frame, Marshall made it a 17-0 game on Cato's five-yard TD pass to sophomore Tommy Shuler at the 9:11 mark of the second quarter.
Shuler, a sophomore, caught nine passes for 105 yards and a score, and moved up in both the season and career charts at Marshall.
With nine catches, Shuler now has 96 catches on the year — tying former Herd tight end Sean Doctor (1987) for third-most catches in a single season.
College Football Hall of Fame members and former NFL receivers Troy Brown (101 catches, 1992) and Mike Barber (106, 1987) are the only players ahead of Shuler in the single-season catch chart.
He now has 997 yards receiving on the year, and 1,119 yards in his career, on 110 catches in two seasons.
UH got on the board three minutes later on Jones' three-yard touchdown pass to Ros, capping an 11-play, 70-yard drive.
Back came the Herd, with one of its best first halves of offense this season.
Cato found redshirt freshman Davonte Allen — playing more lately with senior Aaron Dobson sidelined by injury — and Allen scored on a 46-yard scoring strike to push the Herd's lead to 24-7 with 4:49 to play in the second quarter.
Following a 32-yard field goal by UH kicker Matt Hogan that cut the Herd’s lead to 24-10, Marshall made it a 31-10 game on redshirt freshman Kevin Grooms’ 69-yard touchdown, as MU scored 31 points in the first half for only the second time all season (also at winless at Southern Miss).
Cato was pressured and scrambling left, but weaved his way right and found Grooms on the home sidelines.
The freshman back — who finished the night with 155 yards and who has 732 yards rushing this season, fourth most for a first-year back in Marshall history — picked up a couple of blocks, then stepped out of a tackle about 40 yards into the run and tip-toed into the end zone for a 31-10 halftime lead for the Herd.
But the magic of the first half seemed to leave the Herd in the third quarter, as the Cougars cut the deficit to 31-17 midway through the third quarter.
Jones hooked up with Maxwell for a four-yard touchdown pass and catch.
Back came Marshall with a 14-play, 75-yard drive that Cato finished off with a great play-fake and five-yard run to the end zone for a 38-17 lead with 2:29 to play in the third quarter.
Cato’s first touchdown of the season was the 18th Marshall player to score for the Herd, extending the school record and tying Colorado State for the national lead in numbers of players scoring this season.
UH then got rolling, as Marshall’s special team ills reared its ugly head again on the ensuing kickoff.
Jarrett Irving, taking the ball at the 21-yard line, turned and stepped back a yard and sent a lateral across the field to running back Kenneth Farrow, who returned it 61 yards to the Marshall 19-yard line.
It was a play old-time Herd fans remembered Barber and the late-1980s Marshall teams pulling on a number of foes under former Coach George Chaump.
The run-back set up a touchdown pass from Jones to Ros on the next play from scrimmage, and UH cut the lead to 38-24 with 2:12 left in the third quarter.
While Houston did not come up with an attempted on-sides kick, the Herd gained only one first down before punting, and committed a penalty on the play to give UH a free play that helped lead to another score.
Just 22 seconds into the fourth quarter, Jones hooked up with Maxwell again for a 58-yard scoring strike to make it a 38-31 game with 14:38 on the final period’s clock.
The three-play, 75-yard drive took only 22 seconds and included an un-timed play (gaining nine yards on a Jones to Ronnie Williams pass) after an illegal formation on the punt to end the third quarter.
The Cougars defense forced Marshall into a quick three-and-out, and Jones struck again with a seven- yard TD pass to freshman Deontay Greenberry to tie the score at 38-38 with 10:47 to play, and the crowd of 18,831 mostly Marshall fans began to be very restless.
But the Herd answered that score with a 14-play, 73-yard drive, but then settled for a 26-yard field goal from Haig when the drive stalled at the Houston 9-yard line, drawing some boos from fans who thought Marshall’s staff had settled for the field goal when junior Ray Taliaferro ran on three straight plays from the 15-yard line, gaining three yards, then three yards and being stuffed on third and four.
Back came the Cougars, in part to another great kickoff return as Ryan Jackson picked up the Haig squib kick at the Houston 11-yard line and returned it 38 yards to the UH 49 for first-and-10.
UH drove the ball down to the Marshall 11, thanks in part of a personal foul by junior defensive tackle Brandon Sparrow hitting Jones out of bounds on a incomplete pass, moving the ball to the Herd 26-yard line for a first down.
Sparrow made up for the play by recording one of two sacks of Jones on the day, recurring a nine-yard loss on the next play.
With 1:18 to go, Hogan kicked a 28-yard field goal to tie the game again, this time at 41-41.
The Herd got a terrific break on the Cougar’s kickoff, when Richie Leone kicked the ball out of bounds, setting the Herd up at its own 35-yard line.
Cato hit Craig Wilkins for six yards, then was sacked for a one-yard loss by linebacker Everette Daniels.
On third and five, Cato found Shuler for seven yards for the first., then scrambled for 16 more yards on the next offensive play to move the ball to the Houston 37.
Cato found Shuler for nine more yards, to the Houston 28, but the Herd bogged down there on two incompletions, setting up Haig's 45-yard kick — twice — with seven-seconds on the clock.
Haig was also 5-for-5 on point-after touchdowns, and its the 32nd game in a row for MU without a missed or blocked PAT, making 117 in a row back to a win over Ohio University on Sept. 25, 2010.
Haig is 52-of-52 on PATs this season, and he and former kicker Tyler Warner were a combined 33-of-33 last season.
Houston downed Haig’s squib kickoff at the 19, then tried the multiple-lateral play, with Jones throwing to Peace, who pitched to Greenberry, then to Jones, to Farrow, who fumbled and Marshall linebacker Cortez Carter gobbled up the pigskin and clinched a win for the Herd.
The teams combined for a staggering 60 first downs and 1,095 yards from scrimmage.
Marshall converted 13-of-22 third downs, compared to a 5-of-17 success rate for the Cougars.
Grooms added 155 yards and a TD on the ground, and had 235 yards in all-purpose yards.
Taliaferro — with Remi Watson hurt after eight carries for 35 yards and Steward Butler out — gained 66 yards on 18 carries.
The Herd rushed for 288 yards, the second best rushing game of the year (334 at Rice in double-overtime).
Besides Shuler’s nine catches for 105 yards, Wilson caught seven balls for 72 yards, Demetrius Evans had five for 44 yards and Wilkins added five for 29 yards.
Marshall rolled up a school-record 106 plays (topping 101 plays in the opener at WVU) for a season’s best 665 yards (topping 629 yards at Southern Miss), and tied the season’s high with 37 first downs (also against FCS Western Carolina).
The 665 yards were the highest in a game since Marshall had 733 yards in a Mid-American Conference win against the Bulls of Buffalo, behind now Pittsburgh Steeler’s quarterback Byron Leftwich on Oct. 12, 2002, when the former Herd QB had 455 yards in one half at the JCE Stadium.
Marshall will be on the road for the final week of the regular season with bowl-eligibility on the line when it travels to East Carolina on Nov. 24 at 2 p.m. ECU won its second-straight game with a 28-23 win over Tulane in New Orleans on Saturday, improving to 7-4 on the season.
-- Sophomore quarterback Rakeem Cato threw for 32-for-50 and three touchdowns in the game. His 848 career attempts rank No. 8 all-time, one behind Brian Anderson’s 849 (2007-10).
His 557 completions are No. 3 in MU career annals. His 5,942 yards rank No. 8 and he is No. 6 in TDs with 47. In single-season rankings, Cato is No. 1 in completions (375), No. 2 in attempts (544, to Tony Petersen’s 622 in 1987) and No. 4 in yards (3,883).
His 32 TD passes this season rank No. 7, one behind Todd Donnan’s 33 in 1994.
His 68.9 percent completion percentage (375-of-544) is second for a single-season, trailing only Stan Hill in 2003 (133-of-191, 69.6 percent).
-- Sophomore slot receiver Tommy Shuler had nine receptions for 105 yards. Shuler has 96 catches this season, tying tight end Sean Doctor (1987) for third on the MU single-season list behind Mike Barber (106 in 1987) and Troy Brown (101 in 1992). Shuler has 110 career catches as a sophomore and is tied for 18th in career catches with Andre Motley (1988- 90).
-- Senior wide receiver Antavious Wilson, on Senior Day, had seven catches for 72 yards and a touchdown.
Wilson’s 180 career receptions rank No. 7. TE Cody Slate is No. 6 at 199 (2006-09).
Wilson’s 2,226 career receiving yards are No. 10, just behind fellow senior teammate Aaron Dobson’s 2,337.
He is tied with 15 career touchdown catches for 13th at Marshall with Brian Dowler (1990-91), Keith Baxter, Sr. (1984-87, and father of MU corner Keith, Jr.) and James Williams (1998-99), breaking at tie at 17th with 14 TDs with John “Fuzzy” Filliez (1973-76).
-- Sophomore place kicker Justin Haig’s game-winning 45-yard field goal was his collegiate career longest. Haig is 4-for-4 from 40 yards or longer this season.
Tyler Warner made a 45-yard field goal last season against Virginia Tech in a loss.
The last Herd field goal of more than 45 yards was Craig Ratanamorn’s 46-yard kick against Southern Miss in a November 2009 home loss.
-- Freshman running back Kevin Grooms rushed for 155 yards, his third 100-yard rushing day this season. That is the most for a Herd freshman in a season since Doug Chapman had six 100-yard days in 1996.
Grooms 732 yards is fourth among all first-year backs, trailing John “The Sheik of Seth” Zontini (865 yards, 1931), Ron “The Jet” Lear (1,162 yards, 1979) and Doug Chapman (1,238 yards, 1996).
Chapman, Llow Turner (477 yards) and Jason Balwanz (335 yards) set a record for combined first-year backs with 2,050 yards combined rushing in 1996 for 15-0 Herd.
Grooms (732, 155 today), Butler (did not play, 484 yards) and Watson (380 yards, 35 today) have combined for 1,596 yards.
-- Sophomore middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes led the Marshall defense with 16 tackles, three solo, and it was his second-straight game with double-digit tackles (12 vs. UAB), and he now has 68 total tackles, trailing LeGrande and Okoroha (see below), D.J. Hunter (84 total, six vs. UH) and Alex Bazzie (75 total, four vs. UH, 2.0 tfl).
Corner Keith Baxter had seven tackles and two passes broken up against Houston, while opposite corner Derrick Thomas has six tackles in the game, and end Jeremiah Taylor had six tackles with a -13 sack, while tackle Brandon Sparrow had four tackles, a sack for -9 and 1.5 tackle for losses of -10.
-- Senior safeties Dominick LeGrande (13 tackles, six solo, QB hurry and pass broken up) and Okechukwu Okoroha (nine tackles, two solos) finished their one season at Marshall with a big senior day and senior season, number two and number three in tackles in the UH game and No. 1 and No. 2 in season tackles for the Herd.
LeGrande has 121 total tackles (11.0 tackles per game), 66 solo, 3.0 tackles for loss with two interceptions, five passes broken up and a forced fumble, while Okoroha has 104 tackles, 43 solo, 2.5 tackles for loss, four breakups and a fumble recovery. Both players sat out at Boston College in 2011, and are graduate students at MU playing with one year of eligibilty for the Herd in 2012.