"Every point is crucial, and I think we learned that tonight," summed up Marshall coach Mark Snyder after the crushing loss at Edwards Stadium in front of 22,238 and a nation-wide audience on ESPN2.
Snyder had brought in freshman kicker David DeFatta to replace Ian O'Connor, who had a 47-yard field goal blocked in the first quarter. DeFatta nailed the first kick of his career in the third quarter, a 22-yarder with 4:29 left that brought Marshall to within a score of the Eagles' 17-10 lead.
"I went with what I felt I needed to do," said MU coach Snyder of the decision. "David's been kicking better in practice and Ian's been erratic."
Marshall linebacker Ian Hoskins stood over USM quarterback Dustin Almond after forcing Almond to intentionally ground a pass in the second half.
Southern Miss jumped out to a 24-10 lead when Cole Mason ran in from two yards out to end the third quarter. And thus began the comeback, led by quarterback Jimmy Skinner in relief of starter Bernie Morris, who suffered a foot injury.
"It seems like every time we bring a quarterback in off the bench, we rally," quipped MU coach Snyder after the game. He was right.
In a period of less than five minutes, Skinner moved Marshall downfield not once, but twice, on scoring drives. With 13:14 left, receiver Shawn Lauzon (2 catches for 26 yards, 1 TD) made a stunning catch in the back corner of the end zone that was originally ruled incomplete. Instant replay came into play, and the catch was ruled a score after a review that lasted 2:30, the fifth such play overturned by review in Conference USA this season.
That score ended a 80-yard, 7 play drive that cut the Eagles' lead to just 24-17.
"They told me they were going to run the ball a little bit more," said Marshall running back Ahmad Bradshaw of Marshall's second-half. 'A little bit more' turned into a career night for Bradshaw to the tune of 150 yards on 30 carries.
The Marshall defense rose up and forced Southern Miss to go three-and-out on the ensuing drive, and Chris Royal returned Luke Johnson's 45-yard punt back 33 yards to put Skinner and company on the USM 30-yard line to begin their game-tying drive.
"We got the run established, and that got me pumped up," said Skinner. Receivers Marcus Fitzgerald (2 catches for 24 yards) and Hiram Moore (8 catches for 122 yards, 1 TD) each made spectacular catches to keep The Herd moving. Facing first-and-goal, three consecutive hand-offs to Bradshaw finally succeeded when Bradshaw ran around the left end for the game-tying score.
Ahmad Bradshaw tied the game with Southern Miss on this one-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
Southern Miss punter Luke Johnson pinned Marshall on their 1-yard line, and Bradshaw began the drive with five consecutive rushes. After that, Skinner went to the air and moved Marshall through the air to the USM six yard line.
"Ahmad got that train rolling for us," Skinner added. "Once he got the momentum going for this offense, it really gave us a lot of confidence."
DeFatta came in to kick the game-winner, but USM's Jasper Faulk got a hand on the kick and blocked it, forcing overtime. "He's been pretty automatic," said MU coach Snyder of DeFatta's kicking in practice during the week leading up to the game. "A little bit of a bad snap, and their guy came off the wing."
In the opening drive of overtime, Bradshaw rushed three times en route to moving Marshall to the USM 10 yard line. DeFatta came in one last time for the 27-yard field goal, but the kick clanked off the left upright and back into the end zone.
"For him to come in under such pressure and kick all those field goals…I'm proud of him," said MU receiver Shawn Lauzon of DeFatta's high-to-low night.
Hiram Moore put Marshall on the scoreboard with this 10-yard TD catch from QB Bernie Morris in the second quarter.
The ending that wasn't supposed to happen, did. The missed kick meant that all USM needed was a game-winning field goal, and the Eagles wasted no time in setting up their kicker Darren McCaleb, arguably the best in Conference USA. McCaleb nailed a 34-yarder from the middle hash mark, and just like that, the Eagles walked out of Edwards Stadium the victors in a thrilling 27-24 game on ESPN2.
"This is major college football, and if you're playing major college football you've got to kick extra points and field goals," summed up MU coach Mark Snyder. "Southern Miss was three points better than us tonight."
The loss puts Marshall at a precarious 4-5 overall, 3-3 in CUSA. Southern Miss bumped up to 5-3 and 4-1 in the conference with the win. Next up for The Herd is a November 19 matchup with East Carolina in Huntington.
"We just came up three points short," Snyder said. "It's killing me. It's eating me up. These kids have no quit in them."