Adversity provided opportunity at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Saturday.
After three straight three-and-outs in the first quarter against Miami (Ohio), Marshall’s offense finally got rolling in the second. A touchdown run by Essray Taliaferro and a 4-yard scoring reception by Tommy Shuler on consecutive series helped the Thundering Herd take a 14-7 temporary lead.
Then, adversity returned. The RedHawks scored on their next possession, one play after D.J. Hunter’s 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown was reversed after a review. Then the half ended when Herd kicker Justin Haig missed wide left on a 31-yard field goal.
Considering how poorly the game started for Marshall, that series of events could have festered as the team went into halftime.
In hindsight, though, coach Doc Holliday would not change any of it.
“At that time, I wasn’t happy that it happened, but I’m glad it did happen,” Holliday said. “It gave us an opportunity to see how (the players) would respond to that adversity.”
They handled it just fine. Making all the necessary adjustments, both offensively and defensively, the Herd turned a tie game into a 52-14 blowout.
An emphasis on the run game sparked the Marshall offense. The Herd ran for 287 yards as a team, 107 of that total coming from Steward Butler. Taliaferro finished with 89, and quarterback Rakeem Cato had 59 on nine carries.
“Steward Butler and Essray Taliaferro are excellent backs,” Holliday said. “Kevin Grooms (injured) is not ready yet. He’s done a tremendous job with treatments. He’s about another week away. When he got caught from behind on that one (a 39-yard run), I knew he wasn’t ready. He should be good to go next week.
“We’re going to play all those guys. They’re both (Butler and Taliaferro) talented guys. They’re all talented guys that need to play.”
Cato even got into the act, running and sliding more than in the past.
“Everyone knows I’m a running quarterback, but I just felt the pressure and tucked it and ran what my keys told me and was able to pick up a few yards here and there to keep the drives moving,” the junior from Miami, Fla., said. “When I’m running the ball it just adds another dimension to this offense.”
The offensive line always has to play well in order for the run game to be effective. That’s what the Herd got — as advertised, several players rotated in as the depth Holliday spoke of in the preseason helped in the 94-play day.
“Our running backs did a great job of hitting the holes we opened for them,” center Chris Jasperse said. “It was great to see them do it in a game. They do it every day in practice.”
The rotation of guards and tackles did not affect Jasperse, who made the bulk of the snaps before true freshman Michael Selby entered late in the game, burning his redshirt.
“The guards rotate a lot (and) the tackles rotate every four series,” he said. “I’m in there all the time because (offensive line coach Alex Mirabal) doesn’t want anybody going in, just because we have a young guy behind me right now. But it was good for our rotation; we got some fresh legs.”
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As a transfer from Penn State, senior Devon Smith had to sit out last season, so Saturday was his first game in nearly two years.
It was worth the wait.
Smith caught a 54-yard touchdown from Cato in the fourth quarter, and showed a tiny glimpse of his ability as a punt returner with a 10-yard average on seven returns.
“He should have had 20,” Holliday said. “He will get better.”
“I think, not playing for a (season), I just had to get used to it,” Smith assessed after the game. “I’ll watch the film and see what I have to do. I think when the holes open up I’m going to take a lot of punt returns to the house this year.”
There is reason for Smith’s confidence. As a sophomore at Penn State in 2010, Smith was second in the Big Ten at 12.9 yards per return.
As for the touchdown catch, Smith knew the ball was coming his way. The RedHawks had jumped off sides, making it a free play of which the Herd took full advantage.
“I just had to run and go get it, and that’s what I did,” Smith said. “Anytime you’ve got a free play, you’re going deep. It’s something you can take a chance with.”
Smith said getting better will come down to him getting his legs back under him.
“That, and being patient,” he said. “Just knowing where my blocks are and everything on the field.”
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Tight end Gator Hoskins led the Herd last year with 10 touchdown catches. He’s on pace to smash that mark in 2013.
The senior from Gainesville, Fla., caught two of Cato’s five TD passes. One was a 20-yard strike where Cato just hit Hoskins in stride. The other was a 14-yarder that didn’t go exactly as scripted.
“I didn’t actually run the right route,” Hoskins said with a laugh. “I was running my route and turned my head and saw (Cato) scrambling, trying to get open. He found me and I was able to make a play.”
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Vinny Curry made a huge impact on the Marshall defense two seasons ago. On Saturday, freshman kicker Amoreto Curraj — his last name is pronounced “Curry” — doubled the impact on kickoffs of the entire 2012 season.
Curraj had six touchbacks against Miami. The Herd had three all of last year.
“I told coach when I came here I wanted to lead to the nation in touchbacks,” the Tampa, Fla., native said. “I know I can be a weapon for this team. Even if I cannot kick it to the end zone, I know my coverage team will run down there and make the play. It’s not all about me. I’m happy to be here at Marshall and will continue to try for touchbacks and to pin the other teams back.”
“I was scared to death when I put him out there. I thought he’d kick it in the stands, to be honest,” Holliday said. “He’s a different kid, a great kid. When you have a guy that can do that with the football it is tremendous. He did it both (directions), too. He’s got a strong leg. He’s got to continue to get better.”
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Bluefield native Joe Woodrum made a 26-yard catch in the fourth quarter from backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel. It was the redshirt sophomore's first career reception.
Gary Fauber is the assistant sports editor at The Register-Herald. Contact him at email@example.com.