By GARY FAUBER
for the Daily Telegraph
When Marshall was playing for championships with regularity in the late 1990s and the first few years of this century, players who didn’t garner many headlines often came through in big moments.
Eric Pinkerton readily comes to mind. The tight end’s touchdown catch from Chad Pennington with 4 seconds remaining in the 1999 Mid-American Conference championship game capped off a gigantic comeback against Western Michigan and prompted Huntington sports writer Tim Stephens to quip, “He threw it to the first baseman,” a reference to Pinkerton’s dual-sport role as a baseball player.
After Friday’s 59-28 win over East Carolina that gave the Thundering Herd the Conference USA East Division championship, two names can be added to the list.
Devon Johnson, a Richlands High School graduate and a two-time winner of the Pocahontas Coal Association-Bluefield Daily Telegraph Football Player of the Year Award, had two career touchdowns going in. He scored three times Friday.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Gary Thompson had two key interceptions as Marshall (9-3, 7-1) notched its first nine-win season since it was 11-2 in 2002.
Johnson was the direct beneficiary of the so-called “cheese package,” unveiled Friday for the first time. Used twice in goal line situations, the set features Johnson in the backfield, with big Blake “Cheese” Brooks — a 302-pound lineman — blocking as his fullback.
It made for a fun week of practice for Johnson, who also had a touchdown catch and a run for a first down, as well as four special teams tackles.
“I felt comfortable,” Johnson said. “We’ve got our big line, we’ve got ‘Cheese,’ we’ve got Gator (Hoskins), we’ve got Froh (Eric Frohnapfel). You know, all big people. So I feel very comfortable back there. We ran it a couple of times during the week, and we ran it a couple of times last week (practicing for the Florida International game). (Coach Doc Holliday) was waiting for the right game to call it, and this was the game.
“We knew we was going to need it some day. We practiced it this week, and we knew this was going to be the game we was going to need it. He called it and it paid off for us.”
“It helped us,” Holliday said. “Getting big Devon Johnson and big ‘Cheese’ in there. I just think it gives us an opportunity that if we want to go get a yard, we can get a yard. Those guys did a nice job of getting that done.”
Johnson enjoys lining up as a running back, a position he played in high school.
“When I’m in the backfield, I’m more comfortable,” Johnson said. “But it makes me feel comfortable when we spread it out. I can do both now.”
Meanwhile, Thompson’s play impacted the game defensively.
His first interception, which came after he tipped a Shane Carden pass, helped set up a 4-yard touchdown run by quarterback Rakeem Cato. The second resulted in Thompson’s first career touchdown after he returned it five yards for a 38-13 Marshall lead.
“He’s a tremendously young talent. He’s getting more confidence,” Holliday said. “It just seems like whenever he gets to the ball — he can run.”
Coming through in such a big game and etching his name in Marshall lore is special to Johnson.
“It’s great. This was a big game and we really needed this win,” Johnson said. “I just can’t wait to go to the conference championship. Work hard all this (upcoming) week and hopefully win a conference championship. We can’t let up now. We have to come back, take no days off.”
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