Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 12/20/11
ST. PETERSBURG For more than three-and-a-halfquarters Tuesday night, the 2011 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl between Marshall andFlorida International University was anything but special. But after a markedly dull defensive battle and a dearth of memorable moments ina 10-10 standoff, the Thundering Herd's special teams made the difference asthey have done so often this season. A blocked punt by Zach Dunston midway through the fourth quarter Marshallsseventh blocked kick this season paved the way to a 39-yard field goal byTyler Warner with 5:16 left to put the Thundering Herd up for good. And the win was sealed by the truly special combination of freshman quarterbackRakeem Cato and junior wide receiver Aaron Dobson. Their second touchdownconnection of the night a fourth-down, 35-yarder with 30 seconds on the clock sealed a 20-10 triumph amid chants of "We are Marshall!!" fromjubilant green-clad fans inside Tropicana Field. It gave the Thundering Herd their first bowl win under second-year coach Doc Hollidayand their second one overall in the past three seasons. And it was particularlysweet for a team that started off the season with three losses in its firstfour games and four in its initial six, a team which finished the season 7-6. In the end, Holliday wasn't at all surprised the game turned on a blocked punt.His team has now won all seven games in which it has come up with a block. "It's been a strength of ours all season long," he said. "Weweren't getting anything done offensively and we had to create something." Holliday heaped praise on his freshman quarterback, noting that Cato was a"true freshman" who only joined the Herd in August and didn't takeover the starting job until midway through the season. And Dobson, voted theBowl's Most Valuable Player for his touchdown catches of 31 and 35 yards, wasequally effusive. "It's crazy," he said of Cato's rapid maturation. "From Game 1to now, it's been a big difference. He's grown a lot. He's got a lot ofexperience under his belt and he's going to be a great player." For FIU, it was a disappointing end to a landmark eight-win season, the mostwins in the school's history. The Panthers were making their second straightbowl appearance, coming off a 34-32 victory over Toledo last year in the LittleCaesars Pizza Bowl, but couldn't hold off Marshall after building a 10-3 leadin the first half courtesy of a 2-yard end-around touchdown run by seniorAll-American wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and 46-yard field goal by Jack Griffin. But Hilton, who broke an array of FIU and Sun Belt Conference records in hisspectacular career as an all-purpose star, fumbled after making a catch as thePanthers tried to come back from their 13-10 deficit. Marshall recovered theball at FIU's 40 and put the game away. "We worked all year long on ball security, and I was running and justtrying to make a play for my team," said Hilton, voted the Panthers MVPafter catching eight passes for 88 yards to go with his rushing TD. "We'vedone that all year long we needed a play and I made the play. But it justwasn't my night." Panthers head coach Mario Cristobal, whose team had blocked two kicks of itsown in the previous three games, tipped his hat to Marshall's kick-blockingefforts. "When it's a real tight game, special teams become a crucial part of thegame," he said. "They blocked the punt and I was proud of ourdefense. They made a great stand and held them to three points." The pivotal play was accompanied by ample confusion. FIU was lined up from its22 to make its ninth punt of the game when Dunston raced through for the block.Omar Brown made the recovery but was flagged for an illegal forward pass as hefought his way toward the end zone. The penalty, coupled with a personal foul, placedthe ball at FIU's 23 instead. The Panther defense clamped down, even forcing a fumble on first down that wasrecovered by Marshall. The Herd wound up facing a fourth and 9, but Warnerconverted his second field goal of the night for the go-ahead and decisivescore. "It just came down to execution," said Cristobal of the blocked punt."The guys played hard but we just didn't execute. They overloaded one sidebut we didn't make the play." There wasnt an abundance of noteworthy plays in the early going before thespirited crowd of 20,072 in the fourth Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Marshall broke though first, taking a 3-0 lead on its second possession of thegame. Cato led the offense down field from its 35, with the big play a 25-yardcompletion to sophomore wide receiver Jermaine Kelson. The drive stalled atFIU's 20, where Warner converted a 37-yard field goal with 6:37 left in thefirst quarter. The Thundering Herd defense followed by forcing a three-and-out before AndreBooker returned the punt 39 yards to FIU's 44. But on the next play, Cato'spass over the middle was picked off by cornerback Richard Leonard, who raced 34yards to Marshall's 47. That play seemed to energize the Panthers and their fans. Sophomore runningback Kendrick Rhodes kicked the offense into gear with consecutive runs of 13and eight yards, and five plays later, FIU faced a third and 6 at the Marshall16. Following a timeout, Cato found his favorite target, Hilton, for a 14-yardcompletion over the middle to the 2. And on the next play, Hilton took the handofffrom Cato on an end-around from the left and sprinted in for the touchdown.Following Griffin's PAT, the Panthers had a 7-3 lead with 1:31 left in thequarter. FIU later added to its advantage after forcing a punt and taking over at its 35with 8:59 to play in the second quarter. This time, senior tailback DarrietPerry got things rolling with back-to-back runs of 19 and 5 yards to theMarshall 41. Quarterback Wesley Carroll then hit three straight short passesbefore the drive fizzled at the 29 on a fourth and 5. But Griffin salvaged itby booming a 46-yard field goal to extend the lead to 10-3 with 5:41 left inthe half. The teams then traded uneventful possessions before Marshall began its lastdrive of the half from its 45. Only 1:38 remained on the clock when Cato wentto work, connecting on three short passes for a first down at the FIU 42. On secondand 10, he found Travon Van in the flat, and the freshman running back dartedaway from two defenders and cut inside for a 16-yard gain to the 26. A false start penalty pushed the Herd back to its 31. But following a time out,Cato lofted a perfectly timed pass down the left sideline to Dobson, who foughtoff tight coverage to hold on for a touchdown with 23 seconds left beforeintermission to tie the game. Neither team could get any offense going in the third quarter, or much of thefourth, for that matter. The game devolved into a punt-fest, with 15 combined.But the one that changed everything was the block by a team that thrives onthem. And quarterback Cato added the finishes touches to a phenomenal season. "My motto is pressure busts pipes and I didn't want to bust anypipes," he said. "Me being a freshman, I'm human. I'm going to makemistakes. But I just wanted to go out and have fun, and win a game for theseniors." With a performance that wound up special indeed.
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