OXFORD, Ohio — After a dismal third quarter in which Marshall was threatened by a team with a 16-game losing streak, it fell to Devon Johnson and Rakeem Cato to restore order.
Which they did in the final 15 minutes, scoring critical touchdowns to give Marshall a 42-27 victory over the RedHawks. An crowd announced at 19,005 attended at Yager Stadium, including a few thousand Marshall fans.
Johnson — aka “Rock” — scored his second touchdown of the game, a 27-yarder with 8:37 left that increased the lead from 28-20 to 35-20. He scored on a fourth-and-2 play, when coach Doc Holliday passed on a field goal for the third consecutive time (once in the third quarter). He had done that on the Herd’s previous two possessions, but those failed.
“I felt like we needed to change the momentum,” Holliday said. “That first one [in the fourth quarter], if we had to do it over, I’d kick a field goal [chuckles]. I just felt like I had confidence in these guys, confidence that ‘Rock’ is going to get a yard.”
After Miami’s Andrew Hendrix threw his third touchdown, a 40-yard bomb to Rokeem Williams in the end zone, the Herd answered with a game-sealing 11-play, 65-yard drive. That ended when Cato faked a handoff to Johnson, went around the end and muscled his way into the end zone for the final score.
“He’s reading the end on that deal, and the end must have closed on ‘Rock.’ I think that’s the only time Cato kept that all day, on that read. He made the right read, got in the end zone and that was a good deal.”
The touchdown was contested and upheld by the replay official. Still not happy, the RedHawks were flagged twice for unsportsmanlike conduct, with coach Chuck Martin earning the second penalty.
Johnson, the converted tight end, finished with 151 yards rushing. Cato went 20 of 32 for 261 yards, struggling after going 10 of 13 for 124 yards in the first quarter.
Marshall’s defense had trouble with Hendrix, the graduate transfer quarterback from Notre Dame. Hendrix went a sometimes-sloppy 24 of 49, but gained 318 yards and those three touchdowns. He was sacked four times, but still netted 46 yard rushing. David Frazier gained 109 yards on six receptions.
The RedHawks hogged possession for much of the first three quarters, holding the ball for 28:41 of those 45 minutes. That helped them outdo Marshall in first downs (22-20) and come close in total yardage (MU led 432-418). Marshall’s defense fared well in critical downs, holding Miami to 5 of 19 on third down and 1 of 5 on fourth down.
The Herd jumped to a 28-3 halftime lead, thanks to three Cato TD passes and Johnson’s first TD run. Cato hit Eric Frohnapfel for 11 and 1 yards, sandwiched around a 3-yard pass to Tommy Shuler, giving the Herd a 21-0 lead in the first 15:49 of the game. Johnson’s 2-yard run with 3:10 closed the first-half scoring.
But Deandre Reaves lost a fumble on the Herd’s third play of the second half, giving Miami the ball on its 42 and a chance to seize the momentum. It did, and made the Herd sweat a little extra on the cloudy, sticky afternoon.
Had the Herd drove for a touchdown, the rout might have been on.
“We came out at halftime, and that was our goal,” Holliday said. “And we had a good kickoff return there, [but] he turned the ball over right there, which was huge. That can’t happen. You can’t turn the ball over. But we did, unfortunately, and we gave them momentum we shouldn’t.”
The third quarter wasn’t a disaster for the Herd, but it headed in that direction. For starters, Marshall suffered that turnover, three three-and-outs and a 54-yard punt return by Fred McRae.
When Hendrix hit old Notre Dame teammate Alex Welch for 2 yards, Kaleb Patterson hit a 24-yard field goal and Dawan Scott caught a 3-yard TD pass, the score was 28-20 and the Herd was in trouble.
The Herd obliterated the RedHawks on their second possession, pushing them from their 22 back to their 5. MU regained possession at the Miami 49, setting the stage for Johnson and Cato to keep the RedHawks at bay.
“There are so many unknowns. I thought we made some adjustments there in the first half,” Holliday said. “I thought we played pretty well on both sides of the ball. Second half, we came out and I don’t think we played quite as well. I was happy with the way they responded in the fourth quarter; we came back and we put that game away.”
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette or follow him at Twitter.com/dougsmock.