It was one punch that knocked a nationally ranked team out of a college football game.
Appalachian State, ranked No. 23 in the country at the time, saw an opening against Marshall on fourth and inches at the start of the fourth quarter. Mountaineers quarterback Zac Thomas faked a handoff and popped a pass over the scrum to tight end Mike Evans, who looked like he’d run untouched to the end zone for a touchdown that would cut Marshall’s lead from 10 points to three.
Thundering Herd safety Brandon Drayton had other plans, chasing down Evans, grabbing him and, with his right hand, jabbing at the football in the space between Evans’ arm and side. The ball fluttered from Evans’ grasp and the Herd’s Nazeeh Johnson recovered it in the end zone for a rally-ending touchback.
That 17-7 win over Appalachian State put Marshall in the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 25 and gave the Herd a jolt of energy entering into what could be a three-week layoff between games. Drayton’s heads-up play was no fluke, Herd coach Doc Holliday said. It was an adherence to instruction.
“We talk all the time and sometimes players don’t understand why we do what we do in practice,” Holliday said Tuesday. “You’ve been to practice and you guys probably saw the defense a couple days a week with [defensive coordinator Brad] Lambert and that defensive staff, the players will do a turnover circuit. They’ll actually work on punching that ball out the way Drayton punched it out.”
That Drayton remembered the lesson is something that warms the hearts of Holliday and every other football coach. Holliday mentioned another heads-up play, this one from the NFL. When Dallas Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein’s onside kick scooted across the turf, a slew of Atlanta Falcons surrounded it, waiting for it to go 10 yards.
Yet the Falcons didn’t have to wait. They could have pounced on it before 10 yards and preserved a 39-37 lead. Instead, the Cowboys got into better position and when the ball hit the 10-yard mark, they fell on it, retained possession and Zuerlein hit the game-winning field goal.
“Those are little things that make big-time differences in games like that,” Holliday said. “You’re playing against a team like App State, there are going to be one or two plays in that game that will make the difference in that game, and that’s one of them.”
Holliday called Drayton’s forced fumble and Johnson’s recovery the most important play of the game. It likely was the most important play of the Herd’s season so far, for as much as the team earned in national renown afterward. And it simply was a case of players remembering what they were taught, exerting the effort and refusing to give up on a play, no matter how hopeless the situation may look.
“It’s great to see as a coach when you can take that teaching moment and reinforce it with the rest of the team, and those drills and all those things you do in practice,” Holliday said. “The kids may be saying, ‘What in the hell are we doing this for?’ But they become a little bit more important because they can see the results of that.
“The best thing as a coach is to turn that tape on on Sundays and watch the players and the staff and actually seeing what you’re coaching on that tape,” he added. “That means they’re getting what you’re coaching.”