"We are glad to be 3-1," said Marshall head coach Mark Snyder after the game. "We'll enjoy it tonight, then get ready for West Virginia on Sunday." For many fans, the Friends of Coal Bowl game is the game of the year and Marshall will travel to Morgantown for the third edition of the in-state rivalry and be flying high after winning against a team that had beaten the Herd in every meeting since 2005. Southern Miss blew out the MU in 2006 by 42-7, but it was the Eagles who trailed most of the game yet still had a chance to tie or win the game on the final drive of the rainy day at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
But it didn't seem like it would come down to USM trying to win early in the game. DeAndre Brown got behind Marshall corner T.J. Drakeford and scored at the 11:37 mark of the first quarter on a 68-yard touchdown pass from Eagles quarterback Austin Davis. But Marshall's quarterback, Mark Cann - a true freshman just like Davis, marched the Herd down the field to answer with a 27-yard touchdown pass to Darius Passmore and Marshall tied the game 7-7 with 9:09 to play in the first. The Herd would never trail again.
"We found a way to win," said Snyder. "We played a very good team and didn't really play well. But we found a way to win." One of those ways was most unexpected, when junior placekicker Craig Rantanamorn had a hip injury flare up and prevent him from kickoffs and place kicking. That meant walk-on true freshman Tyler Warner, from Parkersburg, W.Va., would be called on to kick just before game time.
He was golden for the Herd, hitting field goals from 37-yards on his first collegiate attempt, then later adding a 28-yard kick to start the scoring in the second half. Warner was 4-for-4 on extra-points and averaged just over 60 yards per kickoff, helping MU to limit Southern Miss to just 16.7 yards per return.
"That's the story of the game," said Snyder of his rookie kicker. He didn't know until just before the game he was going to have to kick and, boy, did he deliver."
The Herd led 10-7 at the end of the first quarter, 17-13 at the half, 27-20 at the end of the third quarter and 34-27 at the end. But the end was tense. USM took over at its own 49-yard line, out of time outs and 51 yards away. Davis missed on first down, then hit touted tight end Shawn Nelson for nine-yards, but the clock kept rolling. Third down went to Ed Morgan, but he was tackled by Drakeford for a two-yard loss. Damion Fletcher caught a short pass on fourth down to keep the drive alive, getting out of bounds at the Marshall 44 with :15 to play.
Davis found Gerald Baptiste for five yards, and he got out at the 40-yard line with ten seconds left. Brandon Burns blitzed on the next play, and the Herd's SAM linebacker forced Davis to hurry a throw to Morgan, and Drakeford stepped in again to break the pass up. On third-and five, with three seconds left, Davis threw the "Hail Mary" towards a group of receivers and MU defenders, and it appeared either linebacker Phillip Gamble or safety C.J. Spillman knocked the ball out of the back of the end zone to sew up the win.
Spillman knocked down a similar play against Memphis last week in a 17-16 Marshall win. Drakeford finished the game with five tackles, the tackle for loss and a pass broken up, while fellow corner DeQuan Bembry had six tackles, a tackle for loss and one pass broken up.
Burns, who came to Marshall as a safety from Pearl River Community College in Mississippi, was excited about playing in front of family and friends. He led the Herd with nine tackles and one pass broken up. "We are trying to make a change," said Burns of breaking the Herd's nine-game road losing streak. "The defense was tired, but we had to suck it up and we got it done today by staying focused." Burns tipped the ball to Maurice Kitchens, setting up a touchdown to give MU a 34-20 lead, and Kitchens had four tackles.
But while the defense held Southern Miss under its 30 points per game average, allowing three field goals and just two touchdowns, the offense played its best game in four this season. Cann threw for 16-of-25 (64 percent) for 228 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The "D&D" show - running back Darius Marshall and wide receiver Darius Passmore - were rejoined by the Herd's All-American tight end Cody Slate, and all three had big games. Marshall rushed 30 times for 112 yards and one touchdown, from 18-yards after a Kitchens' interception that was tipped by Burns. It was the sophomore back's third 100-plus rushing game in four games.
Passmore caught nine passes for 139 yards and the 27-yard touchdown. But the wide receiver was also effective on the ground, rushing twice for 76 yards. The big one an 80-yard end around for a touchdown to stretch the MU lead to 27-13 in the third quarter. Slate, who missed two straight games with a knee injury from the opening win against Illinois State, came back with not only four catches for 76 yards, including a second quarter touchdown that gave the Herd a 17-10 edge, but also ran the "not-so-often-seen" tight end around for an additional 35 yards on the ground. Chubb Small chipped in with 12 yards rushing on five carries, and also caught two passes for an additional 13 yards through the air.
Southern Miss was its own worst enemy, penalized 11 times for minus-129 yards on the night. Marshall had six penalties for minus-49 yards. The Herd had two fumbles lost, when Cann was sacked for the first two times this year and lost the wet ball in the second quarter, while Passmore also lost a fumble on a long gain later in the game.
Davis passed for 27-of-49 and 308 yards, but just the one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for a touchdown and netted 45 yards on the ground. Damion Fletcher was held in check in the running game. The junior, who had rushed for 151 and 152 yards against Marshall in two wins, had just eight yards in the first half and finished with 82 yards on 21 carries with one touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Baptiste, Torris McGee and Fletcher each had five catches for 59, 56 and 34 yards, respectively.
Kase Whitehead, another true freshman kicker for the Herd, punted four times for a 40.0 average. He had a punt downed inside the 20-yard line for the four straight game, but also had his first touch back. USM had no punt returns and three fair catches. Also recording tackles for loss for the Herd was nickel Aaron Johnson (four tackles), Michael Janac (four tackles), Mario Harvey (three tackles) and Delvin Johnson (one tackle), while Janac had the only sack of Davis, in the second quarter.
Marshall (3-1, 2-0 C-USA) travels to Morgantown to face West Virginia (1-2, 0-0 Big East) in the third edition of the Friends of Coal Bowl at Puskar Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 27, at 3:30 p.m. Like Southern Miss, before today, Marshall has never beaten WVU.