Haig's kick keeps MU alive for bowl
HUNTINGTON -- On Saturday afternoon, Marshall University's football season was hanging on the right foot of kicker Justin Haig.
With the score tied and the Thundering Herd having squandered a 21-point lead against Houston, Haig put every ounce of his 5-foot-8, 180-pound frame into a 45-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining in a 44-41 victory in a Marshall Senior Day game witnessed by a turnout of 18,831 spectators in Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The kick came after Haig had squeaked one over the crossbar that was nullified by Houston coach Tony Levine calling a timeout.
Haig came back unscathed and put the next kick through the uprights to set off a celebration by Herd players and coaches.
"It's a great feeling, but to me, it's more important that we won the game and that we sent the seniors out the right way," Haig said.
Haig's pressure kick also enabled Marshall, 5-6 overall and 4-3 in Conference USA, to keep its bowl game hopes going. Marshall has a shot at its sixth win and bowl eligibility next week at East Carolina.
The kick ended a bizarre affair that featured a little bit of everything, from trick plays to backyard-style football.
Regardless of how it was accomplished, everyone in kelly green was happy it did.
"It was ugly, but we got it," Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato said. "We stuck together and found a way to win the game."
Cato engineered an offense that produced 665 yards -- a season high and the most since Marshall gained 733 yards against Buffalo on Oct. 12, 2002.
The sophomore quarterback finished the contest with 32 completions in 50 attempts for 377 yards and three touchdowns while also coming up with several big runs.
On the drive that set up Haig's game-winner, Cato stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure before taking off for a 16-yard gain that put Marshall into Houston territory.
"I told myself this week during practice that if a team wanted to play three down and drop eight, I'm going to use my feet and do the best I can to get yards," Cato said.
Haig's field goal came after Houston had a chance to take the lead after driving inside the Marshall red zone while trailing 41-38 late.
The Herd defense got a stop and forced a 28-yard Matt Hogan field goal that knotted the game 41-41 with 1:18 left.
It was a big stop, considering Houston had all the momentum after battling back from a 38-17 deficit by scoring 21 unanswered points before Haig drilled a 26-yard field goal to put the Herd up 41-38.
Marshall led 38-17 with 2:29 left in the third quarter after Cato's 5-yard touchdown run on a keeper, but Houston used a spot pass on the Herd's squib kick to set up a 59-yard return that gave the Cougars possession at the Herd 19.
One play later, Houston quarterback Crawford Jones, who was subbing in for injured starter David Piland, connected with Shane Ros on a 19-yard score to start the comeback.
Over the next five minutes, Jones would connect with Xavier Maxwell for a 58-yard score on a bubble screen and Deontay Greenberry on a 7-yard scoring pass to knot the game with 10:47 remaining.
It was a quick turn of events for a game that looked like it was over at halftime.
"We have to find a way to finish games," Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said. "That game's where it is at halftime and we have to find a way to come out and finish."
Marshall's offense clicked from the game's onset, racking up 383 yards en route to a 31-10 halftime lead.
The most dynamic play came on its final drive of the first half when Cato scrambled out of pressure to keep a play alive before throwing a lateral to running back Kevin Grooms.
Grooms followed by making a first man miss, reversing field and essentially setting up his blockers down the sideline for a 69-yard touchdown run. He finished with a career-high 155 yards on 21 carries.
"(Cato) was under so much pressure that I made sure I yelled 'Cato, Cato,'" Grooms said. "He looked and threw the ball. I had a lineman in front of me, and I let them take care of the cornerback.
"I made a cut back inside, and I knew I had one guy to beat. My coach always teaches us you better not let one man catch you. From there, it was all she wrote. I had to get to the end zone. It was special. It was an electrifying moment."
Prior to that, Cato had found success both short and long. Following a pump-and-go, Cato finally found the deep ball he's been looking for, hitting Davonte Allen on a 46-yard touchdown pass to make it 24-7 after Houston had gotten on the board with a 3-yard scoring pass from Jones to Ros.
Early on, Houston had trouble moving the ball. The Herd defense forced Houston to punt on its first five drives with four of those drives being three-and-outs.
The defensive presence enabled Marshall to jump out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Cato hit senior Antavious Wilson on a 19-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of the game -- the first time Marshall has scored on the opening drive since the Ohio game on Sept. 15.
After a 23-yard field goal by Haig made it 10-0, Cato hit Tommy Shuler on a 5-yard touchdown pass with 9:11 left in the second quarter to make it a three-score game.
Shuler caught nine passes for 105 yards. Wilson had 72 yards on seven catches and the score in his final game at home.
Jones was 31 of 44 passing for 316 yards and five touchdowns for Houston (4-7, 3-4), who was eliminated from being eligible for a bowl game.
Houston running back Charles Sims attempted to play on a badly-injured ankle, but left the game in the second quarter.
Now, Marshall goes to East Carolina for a Friday contest in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with bowl eligibility on the line for the Herd. Kickoff is 2 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network.