The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 30, 2013

What a year it was

2013 provided plenty of memories for Marshall football

Whoever was first to say that sports success runs in cycles knew what he or she was talking about. It just seemed like the bad cycle got a bit rusty in Huntington and needed an extra push to get spinning away.

From a team that was so dominant when it became the bully of the Mid-American Conference and was the winningest of the 1990s, to one that struggled just as much as a newcomer to Conference USA, Marshall went through a period that made even the most ardent of its fans consider jumping ship.

Four straight losing seasons in C-USA — including a home loss to New Hampshire — and a 40-57 overall record over the eight seasons prior to 2013 was nothing like Thundering Herd fans had grown accustomed.

But now, wrapped up with last Friday’s 31-20 win over Maryland in the Military Bowl, football success has returned to Marshall. Beating the Terrapins helped Marshall secure its first 10-win season since 2002, and gave the Herd a third straight bowl victory.

Marshall is now 8-3 all-time in bowl games, the second-best percentage ever among teams to have played in at least 10.

What memories were made along the way.

The perseverance of senior running back Essray Taliaferro, I think, is one of the team’s best storylines. Taliaferro was little more than a spring sensation until his breakout performance in his first start at East Carolina in the 2012 finale. He was a wire-to-wire starter and finished his last season with 1,140 yards and 10 touchdowns.

There was the inspired play of senior defensive lineman James Rouse, who almost quit football because of a multitude of injuries that cost him nearly all of two seasons. He overcame the obstacles and led the team with 14 tackles for loss and six sacks. Teammates named him the season’s Most Valuable Player, and he will be back in 2014 after the NCAA cleared him for a sixth year because of the injuries.

Locally, Beckley’s own Clint Van Horn showed just how far hard work will get you. The redshirt sophomore who walked on to the team after graduating from Woodrow Wilson in 2011, worked his way into the starting job at right tackle and never gave it back.

Herd fans will always remember the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash that claimed the lives of all 75 players, coaches, supporters and flight crew. But Nov. 14, 2013, took on its own meaning when Marshall played a road game on that date for the first time since the accident. With the numeral 75 on the left side of the players’ helmets to honor the victims — a decal that would remain for the rest of the season — the Herd came back to defeat Tulsa and remain on course to win the East Division championship.

And what about that championship? As most of us expected, it came down to Marshall and East Carolina on the regular season’s last weekend. Everyone also expected a close game. Everyone was wrong. It was the first championship game at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in 11 years, and the Herd made it feel like 2002 again with a 59-28 pasting of the Pirates.

Marshall fell short of its ultimate goal, simply getting outmatched in a loss to Rice in the C-USA title game. But the ensuing bowl win will serve as a great springboard into 2014.

There’s no reason Marshall should not be the preseason favorite to win the conference. Almost everyone will be back, including quarterback Rakeem Cato, who one national writer feels is a legitimate player to watch in next year’s Heisman race. ESPN analyst Danny Kanell recently listed Cato as the No. 4 quarterback to watch.

Tight end Gator Hoskins will be gone, but Eric Frohnapfel and Devon Johnson will be more than able to take his place.

The defense — the source of so much ridicule in 2012 — made the biggest turnaround in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision, and did so with contribution from a lot of true and redshirt freshmen. The question is, can Marshall hold on to defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, the architect of the turnaround who has already been speculated as a candidate for the position at Michigan — his alma mater — if it were to become available.

Heater was one of six hires by head coach Doc Holliday, who finally got his career record over .500 at 27-24. Is he conservative? Yep. But Holliday proved he knows how to put a winning product on the field.

Take a bow, Herd fans. It was your year, and what a year it was.

— E-mail: gfauber@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @GaryFauber.

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