Depth paying off for Marshall
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - In the 11th game of Marshall's long, twisted season, the team's acclaimed depth at running back stood its biggest test.
In the end, Kevin Grooms and Essray Taliaferro - remember him? - stood strong and ran long in the Thundering Herd's 44-41 win over Houston Saturday. That win set Marshall (5-6, 4-3) up for one last shot at a bowl game, needing a win against East Carolina (7-4, 6-1). Kickoff is at 2 p.m. Friday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
Those two essentially formed the rotation, short of diving into the pool of walk-ons or tapping fullback Devon Johnson on one of his broad shoulders.
With Tron Martinez's season prematurely ended by injury, the thinning-out began when Travon Van was moved to cornerback - and eventually into oblivion. That left the core trio of "baby backs" - Remi Watson, Grooms and Steward Butler.
Watson went down in the Herd's ill-fated ninth game, at Alabama-Birmingham, and was termed questionable Tuesday by coach Doc Holliday. Butler, who injured his left wrist and missed the Houston game, could return.
Last weekend, those injuries left Grooms and Taliaferro to bear the load of the rushing game, getting a season-high 21 and 18 carries, respectively. Taking that stat further, Grooms' 21 carries was a season high for any Herd back.
Physically, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound freshman from Hollywood, Fla., could handle the extra work. But given the season-long rotation of three backs, he simply didn't expect it.
"I kept going to the coach, and it was weird," Grooms said. "I said, 'Is it my rotation?' and he was like, 'Basically, you're the only back that we've got, so why do you keep asking me that?' "
Grooms carried his load, gaining 155 yards on those 21 carries, including that spectacular 69-yard scoring run off a cross-field lateral pass. That gave Marshall a 31-10 halftime lead, important when you consider Houston's second-half rally to tie the game.
Now, Grooms is the team's rushing leader with 732 yards on 119 carries, a 6.2 average, with eight touchdowns. He also has a touchdown among his eight receptions for 50 yards.
Perhaps more important, he has a grasp of the other intricacies of the position. Butler does too, for that matter.
"I've seen Kevin do a lot of really good things all season," said offensive coordinator Bill Legg. "Early in the season, he and Steward, neither one had a complete grasp of pass protection and routes that fit with it. But as the season's gone along, we've kept pushing them in practice. They make a mistake here and there, but we coached them up on their mistakes, JuJuan [Seider, position coach] has done a great job, and now they're to the point they don't mess those up very often.
"Handing them the football has never been the issue."
Taliaferro gained just 66 yards on his 18 carries, but those were just as vital. He had half of those rushes on one drive, gaining 44 yards in a long march that gave the Herd a 38-17 lead in the third quarter. He then had six carries in the fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a field goal, putting Marshall ahead 41-38.
The 5-7, 181-pound junior from Washington now has 31 carries for 123 yards, scoring a TD late in the 59-24 rout of Southern Mississippi. He has touched the ball in only three games, but the coaches know he's around.
"He's a kid who could have played for us all year, but you can't get everybody ready [week to week]," Legg said. "We started the season with six running backs, any one of them we trusted to play, but you can't get six ready. You're pushing to get three ready.
"Tally gives you the same maturity within the system, because he's been here a couple of years. Even though the system has been tweaked and turned a little bit over time, he understands the base principles probably better at this point, still, than the other guys."
Among other injured players, Holliday ruled Andre Snipes-Booker out, and noted that receiver Aaron Dobson and guard Alex Schooler have returned to practice.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.