NCF Nation: Aaron Dobson

Instant analysis: Marshall 20, FIU 10

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
11:40
PM ET

Marshall beat FIU 20-10 in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Tuesday night. Here is a look at how it happened:

How the game was won: Marshall special teams. The Thundering Herd have been excellent all season at blocking kicks, and Tuesday night was no exception. With its offense stalling left and right, Marshall got the big play it needed with 7:35 left in the game. FIU set up to punt from its own 22, but Zach Dunston blocked the kick -- the seventh block of the season for Marshall (three kicks, four punts). The Herd appeared to score on the play, but the touchdown was negated because there was an illegal forward pass. A personal foul call on Tyrone Carper was tacked onto the end of the play. But Marshall was able to stay in field goal range, and Tyler Warner made a 39-yard kick that hit off the inside of the upright to put the Herd ahead. Aaron Dobson caught his second touchdown pass of the game on a fourth-down play with 30 seconds left to ice the game.

Turning point: The block was a huge turning point for Marshall. For FIU -- it was the play of T.Y. Hilton. The Panthers were determined to get him going early, and he had some nice plays -- including their only touchdown of the game. But he bruised his thigh in the first half and was mostly ineffective when he returned to the game in the second half. After Marshall kicked its go-ahead field goal, Hilton had a costly play that ended up being a deciding factor. He fumbled after a catch near midfield with 4:24 remaining, and Marshall recovered. It was his second fumble of the game, though he recovered his first.

Player of the game: Dunston. His blocked kick turned the tide in the game.

What Marshall learned: The Thundering Herd won their seventh bowl game in the last eight appearances, and Doc Holliday led this team to a winning record in his second season. This win is huge for the momentum he is building at program eager to restore its past traditions. Rakeem Cato was inconsistent in the game, but playing as a true freshman can only help next season.

What FIU learned: Without an effective quarterback, it is hard to win games. The Panthers decided to start senior Wesley Carroll, but he struggled. Backup Jake Medlock came in briefly in the fourth quarter but was equally ineffective. They had no downfield passing game, also hurt because of a hobbled Hilton. Now the question that looms is whether FIU coach Mario Cristobal returns next season. He is a candidate at Pitt.
Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Central Florida Knights
Spring practice starts: March 19
Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • The Knights will need to develop offensive line talent after allowing 2.54 sacks per game and failing to block for a rushing offense that ranked 82nd in the country. The Knights return all but two offensive linemen and have one coming in the spring.
  • The quarterback battle will heat up with early enrollee Jeffrey Godfrey, who already has impressed coach George O’Leary. Godfrey will compete against Rob Calabrese for the starting role.
  • The Knights will have to find replacements for three key members of the defensive line -- DE Jarvis Geathers, RT Torrell Troup, LT Travis Timmons. The defense was the main reason the Knights finished 8-5 and won their final five games.
East Carolina Pirates
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • With a new coach, a new system, and a crop of new starters, East Carolina will have its work cut out for it this spring. New head coach Ruffin McNeill needs to replace 15 players with starting experience, which won’t be easy with just a month to work.
  • The most underrated positions the Pirates have to fill are punter and kicker. All-American Matt Dodge is gone as is kicker Ben Hartman, who set the school record for career scoring. Finding replacements for those two is a top priority.
  • New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley will be implement Texas Tech’s offensive system with just two scholarship quarterbacks and a team that relied on its running game. Riley is confident he can install all of his spread offense this fall, but there’s no telling how quickly the Pirates will pick it up.
Houston Cougars
Spring practice starts: March 27
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • The one thing that really kept Houston from an undefeated season was its defense. Brian Stewart, who was named the defensive coordinator in January, inherits a young team with a lot of talent, but he has some work to do to catch the defense up to the offense by September.
  • Quarterback Case Keenum returns for his senior season, but his center, Carl Barnett, does not. Barnett started 39 games, so Keenum will have to establish a good rapport with his new center this spring. Blake Sargent, who was the backup last year, appears to be the front-runner.
  • Even though the Cougars did not lose many starters on offense, coach Kevin Sumlin will look for more athletic players to rotate into the mix. Last season, 19 players had at least one catch and 12 had double-digit catches.

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