Marshall overcame bad memories of its loss to Western Kentucky in its 26-23 win over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA championship game.
Saturday's win wasn't as meaningful as Marshall hoped it would be. Last week's 67-66 home loss to Western Kentucky ensured that the Thundering Herd wouldn't play in a New Year's Six bowl, and that fact appeared to weigh on them on Saturday. But by the game's end, as quarterback Rakeem Cato kneeled out the clock, the joy of the moment seemed just as complete.
Marshall rallied from a sloppy, four-turnover performance to beat Louisiana Tech, 26-23, and win its first Conference USA championship. The Herd had hoped the conference title would complete an undefeated regular season and earn them the Group of Five's spot in a New Year's Six bowl. However, because of the C-USA's weakness as a conference, Marshall needed a perfect record.
Still, the Herd's win Saturday redeems last year's 41-24 loss to Rice in the C-USA championship and gives them their first conference title and first 11-win season since 2002, when Marshall played in the MAC. Marshall trailed for all but the final 1:50 of the game when Rakeem Cato hit Deon-Tay McManis for the receiver's second touchdown of the game. Linebacker Evan McKelvey's interception on a Cody Sokol pass on the next play from scrimmage sealed the Herd's win.
Normally an offensive powerhouse, Marshall struggled to put up points -- its 26 were its second-lowest total of the season -- as it battled wet conditions and committed costly mistakes. Two Herd fumbles led to Louisiana Tech touchdowns and giving the Bulldogs a 17-13 halftime lead. Although Sokol failed to effectively move the ball through the air Saturday -- he completed just 7-of-20 passes for 72 yards -- the Bulldogs' ground game chewed up yards and the clock. Kenneth Dixon led Louisiana Tech's rushing effort, gaining 156 yards on 20 carries with three touchdowns.
Marshall's turnovers continued in the second half -- Cato tossed an interception and Tommy Shuler nearly fumbled away the game in the fourth quarter -- but the Herd's defense held on crucial possessions. After Bulldogs kicker Kyle Fischer missed a 49-yard field goal, Cato (25-of-46 for 308 yards with two touchdowns and one interception) struck for the game-winning score, setting off a wild celebration in Huntington, W. Va. In that moment of jubilation, any thoughts of the Herd's missed opportunities were firmly set aside.