Herd defense bailed out turnover-prone offense
TULSA, Okla. - On this particular Thursday night in a familiar house of horrors, the only team that could stop Marshall was ...
The Thundering Herd overcame five turnovers in its 45-34 escape from H.A. Chapman Stadium, in another one of those bewildering Conference USA bouts. As hideous as the Herd looked at times in the second half, the MU defense buckled down and the offense finally halted its lost-fumble count at four.
That offense owes the defense a bouquet, dinner, an ice cream sundae or whatever seems appropriate. Yes, the Golden Hurricane took a 34-31 lead early in the fourth quarter on Carl Salazar's two consecutive field goals, but those three-pointers represented victories for the Herd defense.
That defense then turned in a three-and-out, handing the game over to the punt-return unit with the wind at MU's back. Deandre Reaves caught a 34-yard punt on the run, dashed 10 yards and put his offense on the Marshall 39.
At that point, Tulsa had no chance against the 103-play, 619-total yard Marshall attack. The Herd was so explosive at times, it once picked up a first down after facing a second-and-26 - and made it look easy.
At the end, Rakeem Cato threw to the surest hands on the team, Tommy Shuler, to take the 38-34 lead. Tulsa's young quarterback, Dane Evans, ran out of luck and found himself on the ground with a 20-yard sack by Ra'Shawde Myers on fourth down. Essray Taliaferro scored on two runs from the 4 to put the game out of reach.
"The defense held our head," Taliaferro said. "We had five turnovers; that speaks for what the defense did. We gave them a short field, [and they] held them to field goals or no points. Aggressive defense."
Those fumbles put the defense in difficult sudden-change situations - Tulsa's two second-half touchdown drives traveled just 15 and 54 yards. On the Golden Hurricane's second field goal, it started at midfield after lost MU fumble No. 3; it was then stopped after lost fumble No. 4 despite starting on the Marshall 49.
It could have been even worse. On the possession after Cato lost his fumble, he lost another one. The ball skittered out of bounds 16 yards behind the line of scrimmage, giving the Herd a reprieve. (With 20- and 19-yard completions to Kevin Grooms, the Herd recovered from the second-and-26 nicely.)
After Tulsa scored its final points for a 34-31 lead, Reaves muffed the kickoff but hit the ground and crawled to get it back at the MU 13. The wind held up the ball, fooling Reaves into a difficult catch on the run.
You could compare it to Steward Butler's muff some weeks back that allowed Ohio to score a pivotal touchdown, but there's a more apt comparison in Tulsa's 59-17 rout in 2011.
Late in the first half of that mess, the Hurricane recovered what amounted to a 54-yard onside kick, a wind-hampered kick that Marshall barely got a hand on. Tulsa recovered the ball at the MU 16, going on for a touchdown that made it 42-3 at halftime.
"When that wind blows, the ball's all over the place at times," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "At the end of the day, we punted them down to the minus-15. Defense found a way to go three-and-out and to get a stop, and they punted the ball and we got great field position and Cato took it down and scored, which is huge."
Marshall seemed to be flipping the 2011 script Thursday night, scoring three times in the first quarter. Cato threw for 206 yards in the first 15 minutes, dialing up 20-plus yard TD passes to Shuler, Devon Smith and Gator Hoskins.
Cato's career-high yardage of 456, on 33-of-58 passing, showed the Herd offense's versatility. The rush/pass totals were nearly equal against Southern Mississippi (304 rush, 332 pass), and run-heavy against Alabama-Birmingham (381-276). In the latter game, the Herd used 32 runs and just 20 passes to gash the Blazers.
But the Herd fumbled just twice against Southern Miss, none against UAB. The four lost fumbles in 19 minutes, 46 seconds at Tulsa nearly put Marshall on the outside in the East Division race.
"I'm proud of the way we played, but we've got to clean up the way we play," Holliday said. "There's no way you should have five or six turnovers and win the football game, [but] we did. That's unusual."
Watson has carried just 19 times this year, for 66 yards. His last carry with the game in doubt came at Florida Atlantic, when he was stopped on a fourth-and-1.
"I thought it was the right thing to do at the time," Blankenship said. "Their offense is really, really good. I just felt like if we gave it back to them [they might score], but our defense had been getting some stops. Probably should have kept the timeout, punted to them, tried to get a stop."
Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.