By GARY FAUBER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It was a national championship that almost wasn’t, saved by a blocked kick that preserved not only the Florida Gators’ win over South Carolina, but also their undefeated 2006 season and run to the title.
Marshall head coach Doc Holliday was an assistant on that team, tutoring a secondary that led the Southeastern Conference in interceptions for two straight years. He knows what big games are like, and knows how one game can set the tone for an entire season.
“We don’t block that field goal, then we don’t go play for a national title,” Holliday said. “Anytime you have a great season, no matter where you are, there could be one or two games that define your season.
“Whether you are very successful or just having an average year, it may be one of those defining games.”
There’s still plenty of season to be played, but Marshall’s defining moment for 2013 might have happened last Saturday.
Despite playing arguably its worst game of the season — four turnovers in the loss at Ohio isn’t exactly a candidate for ESPN Classic — the Thundering Herd left Florida Atlantic with a 24-23 win. There were slight similarities to that Gator win; the game was played in the Sunshine State and came down to a last-second field goal.
And, of course, Holliday was there.
“I’ve been through a lot of them,” Holliday said. “I’ve seen too many of them. They’re great when they end up like the game did on Saturday. It’s hard for a team to lose one like that. That’s a tough deal to have to deal with, but I’m sure FAU will be able to do it.”
There were no gators to be found, but the Herd certainly snatched this one from the jaws of defeat. And it all came within a 10-minute window where absolutely everything fell perfectly into place.
At the 10:01 mark of the fourth quarter, Marshall trailed 23-14 and desperately needed points when it started a drive at its 12-yard line. Forty-seven yards later, the Herd decided to go for it on fourth-and-5 at the FAU 41. Quarterback Rakeem Cato hit tight end Gator Hoskins on a slant, and the senior broke two tackles on his way to the end zone to make it a 23-21 game.
It was then up to the defense to keep the Owls from scoring if the Herd was going to have a chance.
Their drive started at their 25, and they were able to pick up three first downs, but the drive stalled at the Marshall 36.
After a FAU punt, the Herd began what would be the winning drive at its 9 with 2:06 to play and no timeouts. The play of the drive was a 35-yard completion to Devon Smith — who earlier had given Marshall a 7-0 lead on a 77-yard punt return — to the FAU 26.
Runs of two yards and no gain, followed by a spike by Cato to stop the clock, set the stage for a 41-yard field goal attempt by Justin Haig with six seconds remaining.
The Owls called two timeouts to try to ice Haig, but the junior who grew up near the FAU campus drilled the field goal, his longest of the year.
“All those things had to happen for us to win that football game, and they did,” Holliday said. “Leadership on the sidelines, locker room and all the things that we’ve been talking a long time about are starting to take effect. We won the game because of it.
“I don’t really enjoy winning games like that, but it is better than the alternative. I think you can grow as a football team when you find a way to win one like that. It’s been a while since we’ve done that around here.”