Herd edges Panthers in tough fight
MIAMI — Marshall University knew its football battle with FIU would be a tough one.
However, when things got tough for the Thundering Herd, the team became just a little bit tougher.
Marshall made several plays in the special teams and defensive departments before the offense ground out a game-clinching drive to earn a 28-25 win over FIU in front of an estimated 2,000 spectators Saturday afternoon in Riccardo Silva Stadium.
“I tell you what: I thought that was a hell of a football game,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. “That was a physical, tough game against two good teams. And you know what? I felt like our team kept fighting, and, at the end of the day, found a way to win. I thought offensively, when we had to move the ball to put the game out of reach, we did.”
With the win, Marshall (8-3, 6-2 C-USA) kept FIU (8-4, 6-2) from advancing to the Conference USA championship game, which will now have Middle Tennessee (8-4, 7-1) as the East Division representative. Middle Tennessee will take on UAB (9-3, 7-1) in the Saturday title contest. The Blue Raiders beat the Blazers, 27-3 to end the regular season.
Marshall didn’t trail Saturday, but had to stave off several rally attempts from FIU in the second half.
After struggling for much of the middle quarters to move the football, Marshall came up with its biggest drive late, getting four first downs to maintain possession and not allow FIU’s offense a chance to tie or win the game with a final possession.
Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green came up with a crucial
scramble on third-and-3 to secure the initial first down of the drive, which seemed to deflate the FIU defense. With momentum swung in the Herd’s favor, running back Brenden Knox followed a Marcel Williams end-around with a pair of lengthy runs off the left side that put the game away.
The Herd rushed for 88 of its 154 yards in the fourth quarter and Knox finished with 109 yards — 42 of which came on his final two carries of the afternoon.
“That four-minute period is all about coaching and taking what we do into the week and applying it to the game,” Knox said. “It’s all the hard work in the offseason. ... Our (running backs) coach, coach Pepe Pearson, always talks about the tough yards and being fourth-quarter backs. We just had to do our part.”
Marshall led 28-18 after a 3-yard touchdown pass from Green to Tyre Brady — a Miami native who caught two scoring passes — but FIU came right back down the field, using a big fourth-down conversion to set up a 1-yard touchdown run from Napoleon Maxwell that cut the deficit to a field goal.
The big play on the drive was a 39-yard slip screen from starting quarterback James Morgan, who was pulled, but then reentered on the play prior to the fourth down after backup Christian Alexander exited following a hit from Marshall’s Ryan Bee. Morgan saw the Herd’s all-out blitz and hit C.J. Worton on the screen for 39 yards to set up the score.
Morgan came into the game with 26 touchdown passes against just five interceptions and Marshall’s defense excelled at limiting his ability to stretch the field, forcing him into short throws.
The Bowling Green graduate transfer finished 21 of 33 for 177 passing yards and two interceptions. Alexander, who came in after Morgan’s second interception, was 4 of 5 and added a 9-yard scoring run and a reception on a halfback pass for a two-point conversion to make it 21-18 after the Herd had seized momentum with its special teams.
Coming into the game, FIU was one of C-USA’s most efficient teams in all phases, but Marshall’s pressure forced the Panthers into mistakes.
In addition to Morgan’s pair of interceptions, Marshall’s Brandon Drayton also blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown to make it 21-10 as part of a wild third quarter when each team made key errors that negated scoring opportunities.
It was the fourth consecutive week Marshall’s punt block unit registered a big play that led to a score.
“Honestly, coach Mike (Treier, cornerbacks coach), he draws something new every week to try and find a mismatch on the punt unit,” Drayton said. “He told me I was going to have a good chance to block one this weekend, and it worked out how he said it would.”
Drayton’s block was the second big special teams play of the quarter for the Herd, and both helped Marshall negate interceptions by Green on a pair of athletic plays by FIU defensive back Richard Dames.
Earlier in the quarter, Bee and Juwon Young combined to get a push and block a 43-yard field goal attempt that helped the Herd neutralize a Green interception on the first play of the second half.
FIU kicker Jose Borregales came into the game as one of C-USA’s most reliable kickers and the blocked field goal was his second miss of the afternoon.
Prior to halftime, Borregales pulled a 28-yard attempt wide left for his first miss from inside 30 yards all season. The miss kept Marshall’s lead at 14-10 entering halftime.
Marshall jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead before FIU rallied back with 10 straight points to cut the game to a one-possession affair at the break.
On its first possession of the game, Marshall’s offense looked dialed in, driving 80 yards on six passing plays, and Green hit Brady for a 16-yard touchdown to open the scoring.
“It was very important,” Brady said. “You always want to come out and start fast, and we did have a strong start. With a great defense like what we’ve got, they feed off of that.”
Green finished 18 of 27 passing for 176 yards and two touchdowns with the two second-half interceptions while Brady led a balanced receiving effort with five catches for 45 yards and two scores.
Marshall’s defense came up with a touchdown when Omari Cobb read Morgan’s eyes and picked off a third-down pass over the middle, returning it 25 yards to the end zone to give the Herd a 14-0 lead with 4:41 left in the first quarter.
FIU cut into the lead with a 22-yard field goal from Borregales and a 1-yard touchdown run from Anthony Jones early in the second quarter.
The Panthers were able to balance out their offense well on Saturday, which helped them stay in the contest. Marshall had limited its last two opponents to less than 200 yards of total offense, but the Panthers eclipsed that in the first half.
FIU also became the first team this season to rush for 150 or more yards on Marshall’s defense, ending the game with 190. Maxwell led that charge with 96 yards on nine carries, which included the first 30-plus yard run Marshall allowed all season.
With the C-USA portion of the schedule complete, Marshall’s focus shifts to playing Virginia Tech in a noon Saturday game at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia. The game was scheduled last week after both teams had a game canceled Sept. 15 when Hurricane Florence ripped through the East Coast.