"I'm so proud of my special teams and my defense tonight," Marshall coach Mark Snyder said after the game. "I haven't been around very many games where you turn the ball over three times, on the road, and come out with the win."
Yet that's exactly what happened in Mobile on Saturday night. There was good, there was bad, there was ugly. And then there was the benched starting quarterback Morris, coming in to the game in the third quarter to make things right.
The hint of special teams goodness was apparent right off the bat, as Marshall returner Chubb Small returned Tulane's first punt 27 yards to set the tone. Jimmy Skinner started at quarterback, and used a then-hot touch to drive Marshall into the end zone on the very first drive in just six plays. Tight end Jeff Mullins caught the first touchdown of his career with 10:55 remaining in the first quarter, and Marshall had the early 7-0 lead.
In fact, Marshall had scored in the first quarter for the first time in five games.
Marshall's Dennis Thornton stopped Tulane back Matt Forte for a three yard loss.photo by Rick Haye for Herd Insider
Tulane took advantage of three Marshall turnovers and turned them into points, the first coming on an interception of Jimmy Skinner in the second quarter by the Green Wave's Bruce Youmans, who returned the pick 51 yards for the easy touchdown. That score tied the game at 7-7. Tulane would score a few minutes later on offense when quarterback Lester Ricard threw a 34-yard strike to receiver Preston Brown with 9:15 left in the half.
Marshall would again show their special teams prowess on the extra point, with Chris Hawkins blocking the kick and leaving Tulane with an awkward 13-7 lead.
Tulane's special teams would fight back, with returner Israel Route taking a Marty Biagi punt back 48 yards to set up the Green Wave's third score. With 4:52 left in the half, Tulane back Jovon Jackson ran untouched eight yards into the end zone, and Tulane took a 20-7 lead at the half. Marshall mustered just 24 rush yards and 73 passing yards in the half.
"We felt like we were close all night with our return teams," Marshall coach Snyder would say afterwards, hinting at what turned into a momentum-shifting opening to the third quarter.
Snyder was proven correct on that statement on the kickoff to start the second half. Marshall's Chubb Small took the kick 92 yards down the Marshall sideline for a touchdown, and just like that, The Herd found itself back in the game, with Tulane now up by only one score at 20-14.
Chubb Small had 160 yards on kickoff returns, including a 92-yarder for a TD at Tulane in Mobile, Alabama on Saturday night.photo by Rick Haye for Herd Insider
That momentum would be killed at the 2:11 mark, when Skinner was intercepted a third time. Safety Tra Boger returned the interception 68 yards for the score that put the Green Wave back out in front by a 26-14 (the two-point conversion failed). "We need to overcome those mistakes, but that'll come with maturity," Snyder added. "The more examples we get to learn from, the better we'll be." Snyder then elected to bring in Bernie Morris at quarterback, and relied on a stingy Marshall defense to get the ball back.
"Bernie's a superb athlete, but he hasn't been throwing the ball well," Snyder said. "We thought we'd go with Jimmy to give us a spark throwing the ball, but unfortunately we turned the ball over."
Defensive back Dennis Thornton continued his solid night on defense, dropping Tulane QB Lester Ricard for a sack on the one yard line with 12:41 left in the third quarter. MU returner Chubb Small returned the punt back to Tulane's 19 yard line, and Bernie took over.
"We knew we had to come out and stop the run, make them a one-dimensional team," Thornton said. Stopping the run enabled Marshall to hold Tulane to just 186 total yards offense in the game.
"We softened them up enough that Bernie could take off with his legs," Mark Snyder added.
Ahmad Bradshaw looked for running room in the fourth quarter of Marshall's 27-26 win over Tulane.photo by Rick Haye for Herd Insider
And that's exactly what Morris did on the next possession. Running the option play with 8:38 left, Morris took the ball on fourth down and goal and ran in for the touchdown to bring Marshall back, down just 26-21.
"That was a big deal for us when we got down there and had to put points on the board," Snyder said of the drive.
Needing one more stop of the Green Wave in order to give the Marshall offense a shot at winning the game, Marshall linebacker Willie Smith answered the call with 6:51 left when he picked off a errant Ricard pass. Down five points, the turnover meant that Marshall had to score a touchdown to win the game.
With Morris running the option and Ahmad Bradshaw running around both ends, The Herd moved the ball downfield quickly on the Green Wave, aided by receiver Marcus Fitzgerald's (6-for-60 yards) clutch catches to keep the ball moving.
"I just have to be ready when they call my number, and tonight proved that I am ready," Morris summed up after the game.
Morris was ready and willing when he rolled to his left on the option play, and Bradshaw took the pitch and ran in three yards for the game-winning score with 2:10 left. Marshall would go for the two-point conversion, but Morris was stopped just short of the goal line to seal the score at 27-26.
Marshall finished the day with 286 yards offense. Skinner would end up throwing for 15-of 29 and 117 yards, but the interceptions ultimately ended with Morris (2-of-3 for just 35 yards passing, 39 yards rushing) coming on in relief. Bradshaw was the star runner as usual, racking up 91 yards on the ground. In the air, The Herd was led by Marcus Fitzgerald with 6 catches good for 60 yards, with Hiram Moore and his 5 catches for 49 yards in second.
Special teams proved to be the decision-maker, and there was none more special against Tulane than Chubb Small. Small returned four kicks for 160 yards including the 92-yard TD, and five punts for 26 yards.
On defense, Dennis Thornton led the pack with 9 tackles, 4.5 of them for loss and 1.5 sacks, while Curtis Keyes also ended with 9 tackles.
Marshall (4-4 overall, 3-2 CUSA) now enjoys a 10-day break to prepare for a Tuesday night matchup with Southern Miss at Edwards Stadium in Huntington on November 8. Game time is 7pm. Tulane falls to 2-5 overall and 1-4 in CUSA with the loss.
MU's Floyd Wright summed it up best, after notching two sacks of Tulane QB Lester Ricard.
"We've got ten days until we play Southern Miss," Wright said. "So, we're going to have a happy ten days."