BOCA RATON, Fla. - With one perfect snap, hold and swift boot, Marshall's Justin Haig cast away the demons of Virginia Tech.Haig, whose blocked field goal deprived the Thundering Herd of an upset in Blacksburg, split the uprights from 41 yards on the final play Saturday, giving Marshall a 24-23 victory over Florida Atlantic.The 5-foot-8 junior, who attended high school at nearby American Heritage School, split the uprights for his second game-winning field goal of his career. He also hit a 44-yarder last November against Houston.The kick finished Marshall's comeback from a 23-14 deficit in the last 10 minutes, a comeback loaded with perilous moments. Haig said he put the Virginia Tech kick out of his mind, but his coach considered it the feel-good moment of the game.
"I was really proud of Haig, with what happened to him down at Virginia Tech," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "For him to step up and go make that field goal, that was huge.""It doesn't really affect me, the Virginia Tech game," Haig said. "It's a long time ago. I take every kick with the same approach, try to make it."Struggling offensively and tiring defensively from a 35-25 deficit in time of possession, the Herd (3-3, 2-0) essentially stole this Conference USA bout from the Owls (2-5, 1-4) on special teams.Devon "Moo Moo" Smith returned a punt 77 yards for the Herd's only first-half score, and FAU kicker Mitch Anderson left four points on the field - a missed 40-yard field goal in the first quarter and the big miss, a third-quarter extra point that turned out to be the final margin.But it was Rakeem Cato and some big-play receivers who brought the game to Haig's foot. While FAU built its nine-point lead, Cato was having perhaps his worst day since his last visit to the Sunshine State, that 2011 game at Central Florida.
How bad was he? He was 6 of 14 for 57 yards in a forgettable first half, and was 11 of 23 for 110 yards when FAU finished its scoring on a Jaquez Johnson 1-yard keeper with 10:01 left. For the record, Cato finished 18 of 34 for 216 yards and one enormous touchdown.That came at just under the 7-minute mark, when the Herd faced a fourth-and-5 at the FAU 41 and probably was done if it couldn't convert. Then Cato found tight end Gator Hoskins downfield, who caught it amazingly open and turned it into a touchdown.Suddenly, it was 23-21."I don't think anybody ran with me across the middle," Hoskins said. "I don't know what they were trying to do, but hey, I'm open and [Cato] finds me."But FAU tried hard to put the game away. The Owls' three touchdown drives in the second half had covered 75, 74 and 64 yards, and Johnson was busy piling up his 265 total yards - 187 by air and 78 on the ground.
But the Herd defense held one last time, stopping two conservative runs and forcing Johnson to throw a third-down incompletion. After Sean Kelly bounced his punt out at the 9-yard line, the Herd faced a 91-yard march with 2:09 left and no timeouts.
Cato made the march work, but may have made it too exciting. His first act was to escape the pocket and dash for 20 yards and then pitch it to Tommy Shuler. Forward.The damage was small, as the Herd still had a first down after the 5-yard penalty. On the next set of downs, Cato pulled a borderline miracle in escaping a sack and converting a third-and-1.The next play was a masterpiece, a 35-yard bomb to Smith, playing the "X" receiver at 5-foot-7 pretty much out of necessity. Smith ducked under his taller defender and made the catch at the FAU 26."I saw the pass was kind of short [Cato said he was going for the back shoulder], so I knew at the last minute, 'OK, he'll overplay. I'll jump up and get the ball before he even thinks of looking back for it.' And that's what I did."The Herd ran twice and ran the clock down as much as possible before Cato spiked it and the field goal team came out. FAU tried to "melt" Haig - "ice" is a misnomer in perpetually humid south Florida - calling two timeouts.Haig made his kick and, in a mild surprise, the Herd took an early lead in the East Division standings. Division favorite East Carolina stumbled at the Superdome, losing 36-33 in triple overtime to Tulane.
With the Herd up 7-3 at the half, FAU forged ahead 10-7 on its first possession of the third quarter, with Jonathan Wallace running it in from 2 yards. Kevin Grooms answered for Marshall with a 1-yard run for a 14-10 advantage, but FAU retook the lead on the Johnson-to-Nexon Dorvilus pass, and held it for the next 15:22.After Marshall roared back, it wasn't enough.In a rough first half, the Herd couldn't get much of anything going, compiling just 93 total yards and six first downs. The three tailbacks - Steward Butler didn't make the trip on a coach's decision - combined for 25 yards on 13 carries.Cato wasn't great, either, going 6 of 14 for 57 yards and a first-play pick that put the Owls on the Marshall 27. Marshall's defense bailed him out, stopping the Owls and forcing the missed field goal.The Herd had a scoring drive brewing in the second quarter, but Remi Watson was stuffed on fourth-and-inches.FAU was its own worst enemy at times, dropping several balls. That included a drop in the end zone by Dorvilus on the late scoring drive. A rushed incompletion forced the Owls to kick a 26-yard field goal, with Anderson breaking a six-miss streak.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.