The story of any sporting event — the central measure of meaning found in one night’s athletic competition — is sometimes found in the how and the why of things. How did one team dominate the other? Why was one side able to establish leverage and seize opportunities?
On other occasions, however, a given game’s central headline is not so much the how or why, but the what of things. What does an emphatic conquest say about the victors? What did the winning team prove with its display?
The first-ever Boca Raton Bowl fell snugly into the latter category. This was not a complicated how-or-why game. The “what” of the matter means the most. It’s the part of the story which deserves to take center stage.
For the Marshall Thundering Herd, it would have been so easy to drift through the motions in a pre-Christmas bowl against another team from a Gang Of Five conference.
On the morning of Friday, Nov. 28, Marshall was unbeaten and had a chance — maybe not better than 50-50, but certainly a legitimate one — of winning the Gang Of Five’s New Year’s Six access bowl berth. Then came a 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky — on a 2-point conversion surrendered to the Hilltoppers — at home in Huntington, West Virginia. The Herd had thundered through their first 11 games, only to meet with crushing disappointment so close to the finish line. Marshall didn’t play anywhere near its best in that game, and it didn’t play close to its highest standard in the following week’s Conference USA Championship Game against Louisiana Tech. However, Marshall was good enough to win that slugfest, setting up a “battle of champions” against Northern Illinois in Boca Raton.
Yes, Tuesday night’s bowl between Marshall and Northern Illinois was the only non-playoff bowl between two separate conference champions in the FBS this season. From that standpoint, this was an attractive national game. However, Marshall had visions of playing in a New Year’s Six game. Getting its bowl out of the way before Christmas? It could have been treated as a chore, not an opportunity.
Instead, Marshall embraced this situation instead of sulking. The Thundering Herd used the two and a half weeks between the C-USA title game and the Boca Raton Bowl to sharpen themselves and regain the form the team displayed in most of September and the first half of October. In a six-game stretch from Sept. 6 through Oct. 18, Marshall won every game by at least 25 points. The Herd won every game on their schedule through Nov. 15 by a minimum of 15 points. It was only near the finish line that this team — smothered by real-world pressure — faltered.
Teams which experience late-season heartbreak — often brought about by the emergence of nerves in the minds of young athletes — have been known to not show up for bowl games. It happens. Think of the 2004 California Golden Bears, snubbed for the 2005 Rose Bowl due to the politicking of then-Texas coach Mack Brown. The Golden Bears — with fellows named Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch — were lifeless in the Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech. That’s just one example of a team which had its gut punched in early December and could not reset the dial in its bowl game.
Marshall, though, insisted on being better.
The Herd got their reward in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl.
The stats in the box score (505 yards for Marshall compared to 425 for NIU; 224 rushing yards for Marshall compared to 200 for NIU) won’t begin to tell the story of this game. The “why” and “how” boiled down to a few essentials:
First, Marshall’s front seven stoned NIU in short-yardage situations, especially in the red zone. The Herd corralled the Huskies because they were able to force NIU to kick a steady stream of first-half field goals, one of which was missed. Marshall finished drives and Northern Illinois did not. The Herd’s strength in the middle of their defensive line made a difference on that score.
When the Herd had the ball, Marshall clearly owned more perimeter speed and an overall ability to gain more separation from Northern Illinois defenders. There was no doubt at the end of 60 minutes — or even 49 (by which point Marshall had taken a 45-20 lead) — as to which team had the better athletes. The 52-23 thumping lifts Marshall on par with Memphis among the various conference champions in the Gang Of Five. The two former Conference USA opponents and Boise State represented the cream of the crop in the G-5 this season.
Why did Marshall play its best game of the 2014 season in its bowl game? Being prepared for NIU’s rushing attack certainly helped. The skillful passing of Rakeem Cato was also essential to the Thundering Herd’s cause (25 of 37, 281 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions). Yet, while it’s surely impressive that Marshall was both prepared enough to bring the right game plan to Florida and skilled enough to carry it out, the most redeeming quality of this performance was the mindset which fueled it.
Being able to emotionally rebound from an exhausting final leg of the regular season is something many bowl teams fail to achieve. Marshall met this challenge as perfectly as any team could have hoped. From that demonstration of profound maturity, every player on the Herd roster should derive a huge amount of satisfaction. Marshall won something for Conference USA over and against the MAC on Tuesday. It won something much deeper and more lasting, however: self-respect.