Chuck Landon: MU embraces spoiler role against FIU
MIAMI - You’re welcome, Middle Tennessee.
Goodness knows the Blue Raiders should be sending some gratitude Marshall’s way after the Thundering Herd did Middle Tennessee’s dirty work for them here Saturday.
Thanks to Marshall University knocking off FIU, 28-25, before a paltry crowd of no more than 1,500 at Riccardo Silva Stadium, it clinched Conference USA’s East Division championship for Middle Tennessee.
Now, the Blue Raiders, who won Saturday at home against West Division champion UAB, will get to play the Blazers again Saturday, Dec. 1, in the C-USA championship game.
As convoluted as all that sounds, it’s true.
Here’s how it sorted out.
If FIU had beaten Marshall, the Panthers would have won the East Division title. But the loss eliminated FIU from contention. Meanwhile, Marshall knew all along it wasn’t in the running because the Thundering Herd already had lost to the Blue Raiders, 34-24, and that’s the tie-breaker.
So, instead, Marshall embraced the spoiler role.
Did it ever.
And why not?
If Marshall can’t win the C-USA East Division title and contend for the league championship, isn’t having the unique opportunity to determine who does win it the next best thing?
“I agree with that,” said Mike Hamrick, Marshall’s athletic director.
So did star junior safety Malik Gant.
“Oh, definitely,” said Gant, who was credited with four unassisted tackles against FIU. “At least we got to be the team who decided it.”
Indeed, Marshall did.
And as has been the case so many times during the 2018 season, the Herd did it with superlative special teams play.
First, punter Robert LeFevre averaged 44.7 yards per punt. Next, early in the second half, MU’s Juwon Young partially blocked an FIU 43-yard field goal attempt by usually reliable kicker Jose Borregales and recovered the fumble.
Then, redshirt sophomore safety Brandon Drayton iced the special teams cake by blocking a punt in FIU’s end zone and falling on the ball for a touchdown to give MU a 21-10 lead with 1:23 remaining in the third quarter.
It was superlative special teams play. In truth, it was the difference in the game.
That’s because the offense was very spotty and the defense was much more susceptible to the run than anybody expected. That’s why it took the special teams to save the day.
Why, at one point, Marshall had gone 33:14 without scoring a point. That’s because Marshall’s offense virtually disappeared in the second and third quarters. If it weren’t for FIU turning touchdowns into field goals and, then, either missing the field goal or having it blocked, MU would have been in trouble.
Meanwhile, the Herd’s defense was having more difficulty stopping an opposing running attack than it had experienced in weeks and weeks. MU came into the game allowing just 91.5 yards rushing per game, but FIU gashed the defense for 190 yards on 37 attempts for 5.1 yards per carry.
To the MU offense’s credit, however, it did step up and put away the game down the stretch.
Which means it’s time to look forward to next week.
“I was watching Virginia and Virginia Tech play each other last night,” said Marshall head coach Doc Holliday. “I was wondering who we were going to play next. I guess Virginia Tech wants us to come down there and make them bowl eligible.”
It appears Marshall will reprise its spoiler role next week.
What delicious irony.
Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.