HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The Herd needed some extra time to win this battle, but they ultimately came up short in the divisional war.
The Marshall football team needed overtime to wrap up Senior Day in a stylish form following a 30-27 victory over visiting Florida International in the Conference USA East Division finale for both programs Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The Thundering Herd (8-4, 6-2 CUSA East) held a comfortable 17-7 lead entering the fourth quarter, but the Panthers (6-6, 3-5) countered with a touchdown, a takeaway and another touchdown over an 18-second span early in the finale — giving the guests a 21-17 cushion.
The hosts, however, rallied with an 8-play, 75-yard drive that ended when Xavier Gaines hauled in an 18-yard pass from Isaiah Green with 2:16 left in regulation — giving the Green and White a 24-21 edge.
FIU countered in the rain-soaked conditions by marching 48 yards in a dozen plays, with Jose Borregales capping things with a game-tying 41-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining — forcing overtime with a 24-all contest.
Marshall won the overtime coin toss and elected to play defense, a move that somewhat paid off when the Panthers were limited to a Borregales 35-yard field goal that gave the guests their final lead of the day at 27-24.
The Herd, however, needed just two plays to wrap up the victory as Brenden Knox rumbled 24 yards down to the one on the first offensive snap, then Knox sealed the deal with a 1-yard scoring run on the next play — giving MU a 30-27 triumph.
The win momentarily kept Marshall’s hopes for winning the CUSA East Division alive, but Florida Atlantic ultimately crushed those aspirations hours later by defeating Southern Miss (34-17) to clinch the East Division crown outright.
The Herd — who finished tied for second with Western Kentucky in the CUSA East standings — now awaits a bowl invitation to find out who and where their final gridiron contest of 2019 will be played.
Florida Atlantic, on the other hand, will host Alabama Birmingham in the Conference USA title game Saturday. Marshall was the only CUSA team to defeat the Owls this fall, doing so by a 36-31 margin in Boca Raton back on Oct. 19.
After completing his 10th full regular season as Marshall head coach, Doc Holliday was very pleased that his seniors were able to taste victory one last time in front of 18,596 supportive fans — particularly against such a competitive group like Florida International.
I’m really proud of our players and team. We knew that it was going to be a fight. FIU has some players, as we all know. I thought our guys kept fighting,” Holliday said. “In a game like that, you win it, you lose it … you just hope, at the end of the day, that you step up and find a way to win. I’m so proud of our seniors. We have a great group. I love this team. Our seniors are special.”
Both teams struggled with the elements during a scoreless first period, but the hosts ended the scoring drought early in the second as Justin Rohrwasser nailed a 38-yard field goal with 13:52 remaining for a 3-0 edge.
The Panthers countered with a 5-play, 75-yard drive that Napoleon Maxwell capped with a 1-yard run at the 11:29 mark, giving the guests their only lead of the first half at 7-3.
MU answered with a score of its own on the ensuing possession as Xavier Gaines took a ‘Statue of Liberty’ handoff and rumbled 20 yards to the house. The 9-play, 75-yard drive ended at the 7:21 mark and allowed the hosts to take a 10-7 cushion into the break.
The Herd secured their largest lead of the game midway through the third frame as Green plunged in from a yard out, capping a 12-play, 50-yard drive that resulted in a 17-7 advantage with seven minutes remaining.
FIU strung together a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 9-yard Anthony Jones touchdown run just six seconds into the fourth quarter, trimming the deficit down to 17-14.
Marshall mishandled the first snap of its ensuing drive, which resulted in a lost fumble that gave the Panthers possession at the MU 22.
Tony Gaiter hauled in a 22-yard scoring pass from James Morgan on the very next play, allowing FIU to secure a 21-17 edge with 14:42 left in regulation.
The Green and White claimed a 23-17 advantage in first downs, but Florida International outgained the hosts by a 322-290 overall margin in total offense. Both teams committed a turnover apiece, but FIU was the only team to score points off of the takeaways.
Knox — who provided his only score on the game-winner — led the rushing attack with 146 yards on 33 carries. Gaines followed with 33 yards on five attempts, while Sheldon Evans added 26 yards on six totes.
Green ended the day 9-of-20 passing for 90 yards. Obi Obialo led the wideouts with 31 yards on five catches, with four others hauling in a pass apiece.
Omari Cobb led MU with 10 tackles, followed by Steven Gilmore and Tavante Beckett with eight stops apiece. Beckett came away with a fourth quarter interception and Sam Burton recorded the Herd’s lone sack.
Jones paced the FIU rushing attack with 52 yards on 17 carries. Morgan completed 21-of-37 passes for 236 yards, including a touchdown and a pick. Gaiter hauled in a team-high nine passes for 107 yards.
Sage Lewis led the Panther defense with 17 tackles. Alex Jean-Baptiste recovered a fumble, while Jason Mercier had the only full sack for a unit that produced three in the setback.
Marshall is now 6-2 all-time against Florida International and will likely be appearing in its third straight bowl season, as well as its seventh bowl appearance under Holliday in a decade.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.