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Chuck Landon: Late win says Herd can be a contender

Oct. 13, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The road.

That's where the pretenders are separated from the contenders.

What does that make Marshall?

Do the math.

A stunning, last-second, come-from-behind 24-23 win over unsung new Conference USA member Florida Atlantic here Saturday before 19,760 fans at FAU Stadium, stopped a four-game losing streak on the road by Marshall.

That means the Thundering Herd is still a contender.

Particularly since C-USA East Division rival East Carolina lost on the road at Tulane, 36-33, in triple overtime Saturday.

Now, let's be honest.

Was it pretty? No. Marshall's once-potent offense was out of synch most of the game. And the defense? It struggled to stop the run for the first time this season.

If it weren't for the special teams stepping up with Devon Smith's 77-yard punt return for a touchdown and Justin Haig's game-winning 41-yard field goal, Marshall would have lost.

There's no doubt about that.

That's because the upstart Owls out-played Marshall for 57:54 of the 60-minute game.

FAU was more physical than the Herd, dominated the line of scrimmage and deployed better strategy on both sides of the ball.

Ah, but don't forget that final 2:06 of the contest. It was the difference. That's when Marshall simultaneously broke FAU's hearts and rescued Herd fans from cardiac arrest.

All because the Herd showed heart.

Marshall took over at its own 9-yard line with a potential game-winning field goal 67 yards off in the distance. But, then, quarterback Rakeem Cato flashed three nifty moves on a 20-yard scramble. Three plays later, Cato scrambled again, gaining six yards for a crucial first down.

Next, came the back-breaker. Cato hooked up with tiny Devon Smith for a vital 35-yard reception to FAU's 26-yard line.

That set the stage for Haig's heroics.

And that last drive? That final 9-play, 67-yard series? That tick, tick, tick of the last two minutes and six seconds of the contest?

That's when Marshall proved it is indeed a contender.

Instead of getting upset like it did at UAB, 38-31, and losing at East Carolina, 65-59, in triple overtime last season. Instead of falling to Ohio, 34-31, and finding a way to lose at Virginia Tech, 29-21, in triple overtime this season. Instead of adding another debilitating defeat to a resume that already included a four-game losing streak on the road.

Instead of all that negativity, Marshall finally achieved something it so badly needed to accomplish.

With its back to the wall, with the game on the line, with a season teetering on the brink of ruin, Marshall stepped up and did what it absolutely had to do to win.

Marshall made a play. Then, it made another. And, finally, the Herd refused to lose.

The resolve, the grittiness, the willingness to do whatever it takes to reach success had been a missing ingredient from Marshall's football program.

That's why Marshall hadn't won a game in the state of Florida since a 21-7 win over UCF on Nov. 19, 2003, losing five straight. That's why MU had lost four consecutive road games. That's why Doc Holliday had a 5-16 road record as Marshall's head coach.

But all that changed here Saturday night during those final, fateful 126 seconds of the game.

Marshall found a way to win, instead of finding a way to lose.

Was it an ugly win?

Yes.

But that beautiful 2:06 more than made up for it.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at clandon@herald-dispatch.com.

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