HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Two possessions into Marshall's homecoming game Saturday against Texas-San Antonio, the tone was set. Those possessions ended with two tipped-pass interceptions, giving the Thundering Herd 10 quick points on two short fields. And with UTSA quarterback Eric Soza pressured like he hasn't been all season, the Herd was destined for an easy 34-10 victory. A crowd announced at 28,837 watched the Herd's Conference USA opener at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on a stuffy afternoon. How tough did the Herd make it for the Roadrunners, who entered with better-than-respectable offensive numbers? Consider the following:
Soza had averaged 268.4 yards passing entering the game, but was held to 130. He completed just 10 of 26 attempts and threw a third interception in the end zone, computing to a dismal NCAA passer rating of 57.38.
The Herd limited the Roadrunners to 254 total yards, 177 yards below their average.
UTSA may still lead the league in total first downs, but added only 16 to their 122. Second-ranked Marshall now has 133, and has played one fewer game.
Marshall held UTSA to 4 of 14 on third downs, well below the Roadrunners' previous average of 43.8 percent.
After quarterback Rakeem Cato fumbled to the Roadrunners at the Marshall 11-yard line, the Herd defense rose up for a stop - despite a holding call that gave UTSA a first-and-goal at the 7. The resulting field goal stunted any chance for UTSA to swing the momentum, and gave Marshall a 24-3 halftime lead.
It wasn't the most exciting game in many ways, but the Herd was plenty effective enough to keep the third-year UTSA program from threatening.
"Going into this game, they were averaging 500 yards and did it against good team," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "I didn't know how successful we would be at stopping them. Coach [Chuck] Heater and that defense did a tremendous job.
"We were able to take away their perimeter runs. The turnovers were huge for us and our defense continues to get better."
The Herd (3-2, 1-0) had three sacks and nine quarterback hurries, and threw 13 of the Roadrunners' 63 plays for a loss. Seven of Soza's passes were broken up, three by defensive linemen.
The carnage began shortly after UTSA won the toss and elected to receive. Soza threw a 15-yard pass for a first down and Evans Okotcha ran for two, but Soza's second-and-3 pass was tipped at the line. Then it was tipped again and Evan McKelvey took it in at the UTSA 42.
The Herd bogged down inside the 20 and Justin Haig hit the first of his two field goals, but the Herd offense got its chance for redemption. Gary Thompson and Ra'Shawde Myers took care of that, with the former tipping a Soza pass at the line and Myers snagging it just above the turf.
Cato directed the 38-yard touchdown drive in six plays, finishing with a 17-yard TD strike to Devon Johnson, who was catching his second pass of the season.
MU's defense forced a three-and-out and the Herd followed with a nine-play, 89-yard drive. The big play was Cato's 40-yard toss to Jazz King, and Essray Taliaferro finished with a 4-yard run.
The Herd offense slowed down in the second quarter - indeed, the rest of the contest. An 11-play, 83-yard drive finished with a Steward Butler 1-yard run, giving the Herd a 24-0 lead with 5:05 left in the half. Sean Ianno's field goal - remember, UTSA couldn't score a touchdown despite having first-and-goal from the 7 - set the 24-3 halftime score.
The third quarter was unmemorable, save for safety A.J. Leggett's interception in the end zone on what could have been a 25-yard scoring play. Soza tried to isolate a receiver on linebacker McKelvey, but McKelvey matched him stride for stride and Leggett had excellent position to make the catch.
That, too, kept the Roadrunners from sniffing a change in momentum.
"I was banking on A.J. to be over there," McKelvey said. "I guess they tried to think I was a typical linebacker, put me on an island. I played safety before, so I would know how to play that technique. Hey, we made a play and that's what we're supposed to do."
After Haig kicked a 31-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter, Soza and the Roadrunners woke up for an eight-play, 75-yard drive. Three plays after Soza hit the speedy Kenny Bias for 27 yards on a bubble screen, Soza scored from the 1 to make it 27-10.
That brought a sliver of suspense into the proceedings, which the Herd offense proceeded to squash with its longest TD drive of the season, an 11-play, 74-yard march that burned 5 minutes, 58 seconds. After 10 running plays got the Herd to the UTSA 4, Cato found Demetrius Evans in the middle for the touchdown with 3:46 left.
UTSA (2-4, 1-1) became the 10th Texas-based team to file out of Huntington a loser. Coach Larry Coker was equally impressed with the Herd defense and depressed over his team's offensive outing.
"You can't win with negative plays," Coker said. "That's huge. That's a bad situation. The negative plays are disastrous for anyone - you fall behind on the chains and your defense has a huge disadvantage."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.