ST. PETERSBURG — Marshall made a habit of winning close games late this season, and Tuesday night was no different as the Thundering Herd blocked a punt in the fourth quarter and added a touchdown in the final minute for a 20-10 victory over Florida International in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field.
"It means so much. I've been in 27 bowls now, and the ones I remember are the ones I won," said Herd coach Doc Holliday, a former assistant at Florida. "We've done it all year. These guys have learned how to overcome adversity, to fight, play every snap and look up at the end of the game and see what happens."
Deadlocked at 10-10 most of the second half, the Herd's Zach Dunston blocked an FIU punt for what looked to be a go-ahead touchdown with 7:35 remaining, but a penalty for an illegal forward pass and ensuing personal foul negated the score and backed Marshall out to the 23-yard line. Kicker Tyler Warner gave Marshall the lead on a 39-yard field goal.
"When a game's tough like that, when it's real tight, special teams becomes a critical part of it," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. "They made a play on special teams that changed the game."
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato hooked up with receiver Aaron Dobson at the end of each half, starting with a 31-yard score with 23 seconds left in the first half to tie the game. Going for it on fourth down with 30 seconds left at the end of the game, the two hooked up for a 35-yard touchdown to put the game away.
Dobson was named team MVP, as was FIU receiver T.Y. Hilton, who scored the Golden Panthers' lone touchdown on a 2-yard run.
The three previous bowl games at the Trop had all featured at least 55 combined points, but the Herd (7-6) and Panthers (8-5) were deadlocked at 10-10 for much of the second half, with neither team moving beyond the opposing 47-yard line until the blocked punt.
FIU's best chance at a late score ended when Hilton lost a fumble near midfield with 4:24 remaining. Marshall converted a key third down on a screen to tight end C.J. Crawford to help salt away the final minutes. Rather than punt with 30 seconds left, Marshall went for it from the FIU 35, getting the touchdown pass to punctuate the win.
FIU's defense, which had held opponents to 12.6 points in its previous five games coming in, kept pressure on Marshall, which got surprisingly solid play from its defense.
The Herd had allowed 41 points per game in its six losses, but held the Panthers to 10 points, the fewest by a Marshall opponent this year and one more than FIU's season low.
The fourth installment of the St. Petersburg bowl game was its first without the draw of a Big East team — the conference's representatives had won each of the first three games against Conference USA opponents. With FIU filling in from the Sun Belt, the Panthers held their own against a Marshall team that wasn't bowl eligible until an overtime win in its last game of the season.
The attendance was slightly up from last season — announced as 20,072, barely up from 20,017 for Louisville and Southern Miss last season.
Still, it was the largest crowd FIU had played in front of since an Oct. 1 home game against Duke.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.