West Virginia players sprinted out on the field in exultation, and the gold-clad fans in the stands celebrated the most unlikely of victories in the annual in-state matchup, which moved the Mountaineers' record to 10-0 all-time in the series.
But the missed field goal was only the last in a series of plays that, had things not gone in No. 23 WVU's favor, likely would have resulted in an upset of epic proportions. Indeed, the visitors had to drive 96 and 98 yards on back-to-back drives for touchdowns just to force overtime.
"It just shows you how we grew as a team," said West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart.
All looked lost when Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith fumbled while being sacked by Vinny Curry with just over 10:00 remaining in the fourth quarter. Donald Brown recovered for MU at the West Virginia 16-yard line, and Holliday's squad, which held a 21-6 lead at the time, only needed a field goal to put things out of reach.
Smith, who had been harassed by Herd defenders all game long, took advantage. Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen moved to a two-minute drill tempo with just over 8:00 left on the clock, rendering Marshall unable to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage and bring the pressure that had frustrated WVU all game long.
"The thing with a two-minute drill is people cannot blitz you like they were doing all game," said Stewart. "We had them off balance."
The results were markedly better than anything else Mullen's offense had produced all game. Smith made perhaps the play of the game when he scrambled 17 yards for a first down on a third-and-11 play from his own 29-yard line.
|This game recap presented by The Book Exchange|
Three plays later, running back Noel Devine found the end zone from four yards out to make it 21-13 with 5:12 remaining.
Marshall again reached WVU territory on its ensuing drive, but Andre Booker came up just short on a third-and-10 run, and Holliday opted to punt with just over 3:00 to go instead of going for a fourth-and-1 play that likely would have secured the win.
It looked like the right decision when Kase Whitehead's 41-yard punt was downed at the Mountaineers' 2-yard line. But that was not enough to deter a newly-confident Smith, who took the field with the outcome resting squarely on his young shoulders.
Smith rose to the occasion, calmly picking up a third-and-3 early in the drive with a 6-yard pass to Bailey. Facing third-and-14 a few plays later, he delivered a smooth pass to Tavon Austin in the middle of the field, who juked his way for 13 yards. On fourth-and-1, Smith again was asked to make a play, and he came through on a simple 7-yard screen pass to Devine.
The sophomore then found Johnson, the tight end who started in place of the injured Tyler Urban, in the back corner of the end zone on a second-and-goal for a 5-yard touchdown that made it 21-19 with 12 seconds left. Johnson just managed to keep his feet in bounds on the play, which stood up upon replay review from the Conference USA officials.
But Smith's work was not yet done. On the ensuing 2-point conversion play, he stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure from the edge. For a moment, it did not seem like the quarterback could find an open receiver. But he found Jock Sanders streaking across the back of the end zone and floated a pass into the senior's grasp, tying the game and silencing what had been a wild crowd.
"I knew that it is a 60 minute game," said Holliday. "Unfortunately, we did not play all 60 minutes."
Indeed, it seemed as though the Marshall backers could not believe victory had been taken from their grasp. And even when Smith fumbled the first snap of overtime and fell on the ball for a 9-yard loss, momentum was still clearly on the Mountaineers' side.
Smith found Devine for nine yards on second down to get back to the original line of scrimmage, and then found Austin for 13 more to convert on third-and-10.
But on the ensuing set of downs, the quarterback's pass for J.D. Woods fell incomplete on third-and-1 and West Virginia settled for a 20-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal to take a 24-21 lead, the squad's first advantage of the night.
Marshall's subsequent drive was doomed almost before it started, as a lateral pitch from quarterback Brian Anderson to running back Andre Booker went for a loss of eight yards on first down. Anderson hit South Charleston native Aaron Dobson for a gain of 11 on second down.
Anderson seemed to have a first down secured when he threw to tight end Lee Smith on third-and-7, but reserve cornerback Brantwon Bowser timed his hit perfectly to pop the ball away from Smith's grasp.
Warner, a Parkersburg native, had a chance to send the game to a second overtime, but his 39-yard field goal started to the right and never came back, setting off a wild celebration among the Mountaineer backers in Huntington and leaving Marshall fans to wonder what had happened.
"I give them credit," said a dejected Holliday. "They found a way to make plays at the end, and our guys did not."
It was Marshall that made all the plays in the first half, taking advantage of a 55-yard run by Martin Ward to set up an 8-yard touchdown pass from Anderson to Antavious Wilson on the game's opening drive.
WVU answered with a 34-yard Bitancurt field goal, and seemed to be in position to score again before a fourth-and-short run by Ryan Clarke inside the Herd's 10-yard line failed to pick up a first down.
The Herd answered quickly, as Dobson beat cornerback Keith Tandy on the ensuing play and Anderson found him for a 96-yard touchdown. It was 14-3 and all the momentum was on Marshall's side all the way until halftime.
A 33-yard Bitancurt field goal drew West Virginia within 14-6 in the third quarter. But Anderson found Wilson again for a 12-yard scoring strike on the first play of the fourth quarter that made it 21-6, and the MU partisans truly began to believe an upset was in the offing.
It was not to be, despite a heroic effort from Anderson. The Marshall quarterback finished 20-of-29 for 229 yards and three touchdowns. He did not throw an interception and was not sacked.
But Smith's heroics elevated his statistics in the final minutes. He was 32-of-45 for 316 yards and a touchdown. He gained 60 yards on the ground, but lost 47 as a result of three sacks and a fumble to finish with only 13 net yards rushing.
"I was very pleased with how he responded," Stewart said. "Not many football players in the country, in their second career [complete] game can do what he did against a very good Marshall team."
Devine had 112 yards rushing and a touchdown on his 23 carries and led all players in receptions with 10 grabs for another 62 yards. Austin added another 85 yards on his nine catches.
But the statistics meant little by the end of Friday night's tussle. In the end, it was all about the final score, which was erased from the new video boards inside Edwards Stadium almost as soon as Warner's field goal was ruled no good.
"I told the team that we are going to have bumps in the road in life," said Stewart. "There are going to be tougher situations than tonight, but hopefully this experience will help them get through something down the road."