GALLERY: Herd football remains undefeated

Shannon Stowers, Assistant Sports Editor

Let’s take a trip back to 2013. The Thundering Herd is traveling to Houston, Texas, while Herd fans are wondering why the Conference USA championship isn’t being played in Huntington.

The explanation for the tiebreaker between the two 9-3 teams was that Rice had the higher BCS ranking, despite trailing the Herd in the two human polls which factor into the rankings. Still, Herd fans weren’t happy.

Fast forward to Saturday; 343 days after losing 41-24 to the Owls in its first conference championship appearance, the Herd finally got its revenge.

Marshall University tight end Eric Frohnapfel said knowing the Owls were going to be the team lining up on the opposing sideline was all the motivation the team needed.

“This late in the season, you’re always looking for things to motivate you because it’s easy to fall into a routine and slack a little bit,” Frohnapfel said. “But obviously, with how they played last year—how they beat us so bad, the gravity of that game—that’s something we talked about a lot this week, and how we needed revenge and how we owe them one.”

The Herd repaid the Owls in full Saturday, outgaining Rice 581-180 in total yards and holding the Owls to 3 of 12 on third down on its way to a 41-14 victory.

It was one of the best all-around performances for the Herd this season. The offense was efficient, scoring on 7 of its 10 drives while the defense shut down a Rice offense that was averaging 33.1 points per game during its six-game winning streak. In fact, the Herd defense held Rice to just 105 total yards through three quarters.

The Herd defensive starters allowed just seven points while it was on the field, which came off a Rakeem Cato interception that gave the Owls starting field position at the Herds 17 yard line.

The Herd also kept pressure on Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson, consistently delivering punishing hits and holding the junior to just 99 yards passing, the second time the Herd has held a quarterback to under 100 yards passing this season (85 yards vs. Old Dominion University’s Taylor Heinicke).

Linebacker Neville Hewitt, one of those Herd defenders who put the heat on Jackson, said it felt good to stop a team that many said was the best the Herd would be facing in conference play.

“It feels good,” Hewitt said. “Going into the game, they were saying we were finally playing a quote unquote real team, so you’ve got to show up and play, and we did that today.”

Frohnapfel echoed the senior linebacker’s comments, saying the win was big for the Herd when it comes to a national perspective.

“There’s been a gripe all season that we don’t have the strength of schedule. This is a team that has looked good all season,”Frohnapfel said. “This is a good

win for us. This is what we needed to do, to win by this big margin. Eventually, we’re going to get the attention we deserve.”

The Herd defense wasn’t the only unit to put pressure on the Owls. Quarterback Rakeem Cato and the offense continued the high productivity fans have been used to this season. The Herd attacked Rice with a balanced offense, totaling 284 yards on the ground and 297 through the air.

All 297 yards came from the arm of Cato, who had four touchdowns in a game in which the senior broke another school record.

With a 30-yard touchdown pass to Frohnapfel, who finished with 107 yards and one touchdown, Cato tallied his 116th touchdown pass at Marshall, passing Chad Pennington for first place on the career passing touchdowns list.

After the game, Cato said Pennington is a close friend who has taught him a lot on and off the field.

“[He’s] like my big brother, we talk all the time. We have a great relationship,” Cato said. “Not only do we talk about football, but I have two kids of my own, he has kids, so I’m learning from him how to be a father.”

After missing the game last week while recovering from an injury, running back Devon Johnson was back in the lineup and the junior didn’t disappoint. Johnson finished with 199 yards and one touchdown while averaging 7.4 yards per carry.

On the weekend of the 44th anniversary of the plane crash, the Herd wore the number 75 on the side of its helmets. Cato said having the number there made it even more important the team go out and play its best.

“What it means for us and for me, it’s mandatory that we go out there and give it our all,” Cato said.

With a 27-point win over the best team it’s faced to this point, Marshall fans will now wait to see if the Herd appears in the College Football Playoff top 25 rankings for the first time this season. Cato, however, already has the Herd’s next opponent, University of Alabama at Birmingham, on his mind.

“I have no idea about the bowls, I have no idea about the top 25, none of that,” Cato said. “We’re just worried about UAB right now and just trying to complete our season.”

The Herd will travel to Birmingham to take on the Blazers Saturday at noon. The game will be televised on the American Sports Network.

Shannon Stowers can be contacted at [email protected].