“These kids never flinched,” coach Doc Holliday said. “The one thing I like about this group is that it didn’t matter.”
With standout quarterback Rakeem Cato leading the way, the Thundering Herd scored two touchdowns in the final 12 minutes to pull out a 31-20 victory Friday.
Cato went 28-for-44 for 337 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. The most notable part about his performance was that he saved the best for last.
Marshall (10-4) trailed 20-17 before Cato brought them back. After directing a 63-yard march to put Marshall up 24-20 with 12:05 left, Cato clinched it with an 8-yard touchdown throw to Gator Hoskins with 3:42 to play.
Cato had a brilliant season before this game, throwing for 3,579 yards and 36 touchdowns. But this performance — on a national stage against an Atlantic Coast Conference foe — served as the perfect finish.
“I tell the guys all the time, ‘Big-time players make big-time plays in a big-time game, and this was a big-time game,’” Cato said.
He had plenty of help. Hoskins had six catches for 104 yards and two scores, Tommy Shuler caught nine passes for 68 yards and a touchdown, punter Tyler Williams pinned the Terrapins inside the 10 four times, and Marshall’s underappreciated defense played a huge role.
Maryland (7-6) scored only one touchdown after halftime, and A.J. Leggett followed Cato’s final TD pass with an interception to set off a celebration among the huge gathering of Marshall fans among the crowd of 30,163.
“It’s a great way to send the seniors out,” Holliday said.
Making its first bowl appearance under third-year coach Randy Edsall, Maryland closed out its association with the ACC by falling to the runner-up in Conference USA. The Terrapins will join the Big Ten next year.
Despite the loss, Maryland had its first winning season since 2010 and finished with more victories than in Edsall’s first two years combined.
“I think this season really helped us as we leave the ACC and enter the Big Ten,” Edsall said.
Brandon Ross rushed for 116 yards for Maryland, and C.J. Brown went 14-for-24 for 197 yards. Although the Terrapins amassed 391 yards, they converted only two of 14 third-down tries.
“We kept hurting ourselves with penalties, little things that were not helping us on first and second down which were creating unmanageable third downs,” Brown said. “There wasn’t anything they did that we hadn’t seen before.”
After a whirlwind first half that produced 30 points and 24 first downs, the teams settled into a defensive struggle in the third quarter. Each of the first four possessions ended in punts, but on the last one Marshall pinned the Terrapins on their own 1.
In the same situation earlier in the game, Maryland ran three times for 2 yards and punted. This time, the Terrapins put together a 17-play drive that included a pair of fourth down conversions and lasted for 7 minutes, 44 seconds. The 99-yard march ended with a 2-yard pass from Brown to tight end Dave Stinebaugh, giving Maryland a 20-17 lead with 14:56 left.
Marshall was quick to respond. Cato completed two third-down passes, and Essray Taliaferro ran in from the 7 to make it 24-20.
“To be able to answer back like that was huge,” Holliday said.
Brown subsequently came up short on a third-and-5 bootleg, providing Cato the opportunity to put the game away. Although the Terrapins got the stop they needed, Cato came up big during the next series.
After completing a 28-yard pass to Hoskins on third-and-11, Cato connected with Hoskins again in the end zone. It was Hoskins’ second touchdown of the game and 15th of the season, most in the nation for tight ends.
Cato went 16-for-25 for 193 and two touchdowns in the first half to provide the Thundering Herd with a 17-13 lead.
After pinning the Terrapins near their own goal line, Marshall went up 7-0 with a 37-yard drive that ended with Cato’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Shuler.
Maryland tied it with a 29-yard touchdown throw from Brown to Levern Jacobs, but the Thundering Herd promptly regained the lead with a lengthy march that produced an 8-yard touchdown pass from Cato to Hoskins.
After Maryland kicked a field goal, Marshall got one of its own for a 17-10 lead.
Near the end of the half, Maryland moved 81 yards in 10 plays to set up Brad Craddock for his second field goal.
On this day, the Terrapins needed touchdowns to overcome Cato and Marshall’s formidable attack.
“The problem we had was we got down there in the red zone and ended up kicking field goals,” Edsall lamented.