HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Not a great start, not a great finish, but what the Herd did in between more than made up the slack.
The Marshall football team knocked off two-time defending Conference USA champion Western Kentucky by a 30-23 count on Saturday evening in Joan C. Edwards Stadium, outscoring the Hilltoppers 30-3 in the middle two quarters.
After a pregame video tribute to the 75 lost in the Nov. 14, 1970 plane crash, the Thundering Herd (7-3, 4-2 Conference USA) took the field sporting special decals on their white helmets, while wearing all-black uniforms.
The Western Kentucky (5-5, 3-3) offense scored on the game’s opening drive, covering 73 yards in 11 plays with Mike White finding Quin Jernighan for the six-yard scoring pass. Ryan Nuss kicked in the extra-point with 9:54 to go in the first quarter, making the Hilltoppers’ lead 7-0.
The Thundering Herd defense earned forced WKU to punt after just three plays on the remaining three Hilltopper drives in the first half.
Marshall punted on its first offensive possession, but began its second drive from midfield. The MU offense covered 38 yards in 10 plays to end the first period, and on the first play of the second quarter, Kaare Vedvik connected on a 29-yard field goal, that cut the Western Kentucky lead to 7-3.
Marshall’s next drive covered 65 yards in 11 plays, with Keion Davis scoring on a fourth down run from the three-yard line. Vedvik made the point-after kick, his first of three successful extra-points, giving the Herd a 10-7 lead with 7:29 left in the first half.
The next Herd drive began at the MU eight-yard line with 6:18 left in the half. Marshall covered 67 yards in 15 plays, but with time winding down, settled for a 42-yard field goal by Vedvik and a 13-7 halftime lead.
Marshall expanded its lead to 20-7 on the first possession of the second half, covering 64 yards in nine plays, with freshman Tyler King scoring on a 10-yard run with 11:01 left in third quarter.
The Hilltopper offense bounced back in on its first drive of the second half, covering 72 yards in nine plays before settling for a 28-yard field goal by Nuss.
After a punt by each side, Western Kentucky came away with the game’s first takeaway, as Devon Key intercepted a pass with 3:10 left in the third quarter.
Not to be outdone, the Herd defense responded with an even bigger play, as freshman Nazeeh Johnson intercepted a WKU pass and returned it 45 yards for the touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, MU freshman Jaquan Yulee forced a fumble and Herd junior Chase Hancock recovered for the Green and White.
Marshall was backed up three yards on the drive, but was still in range for Vedvik, who made a 44-yard kick to extended the hosts’ lead to 30-10 with 35 seconds left in the third.
With 13:48 left in regulation, Western Kentucky found paydirt on a 25-yard pass from White to Cameron Echols-Luper. The point-after kick failed, however, leaving Marshall’s lead at 30-16.
The Hilltoppers cut into their deficit again with 3:02 remaining, as White connected with Jernighan for a 27-yard scoring pass. Nuss made the point-after kick, but WKU never regained the ball, as Marshall sealed the 30-23 victory.
“That was a heck of a football game,” said eighth-year MU head coach Doc Holliday. “It was a very physical game and I’m just proud of the way our players played. This is a really emotional game for us. How’d you like to be the head football coach for a game that you can’t lose, because that’s what this is. I’m just happy for our fans, I’m happy that we were able to honor the 75 the way we did, and any time you can go out there and get that win, it’s good.
“Any time you play to honor the 75, with our history, it’s important,” added Holliday. “We’ve played extremely well on that particular game (closest to the anniversary of the plane crash). It’s huge, because of all the implications of the game. It was huge because of who it was, Western Kentucky, and because of the date that it fell on that we ended up putting the 75 on our helmets and representing the people who died in the crash.”
Saturday also served as Holliday’s 100th game as a head coach and his 60th win. Marshall had lost three straight to the Hilltoppers prior to Saturday. The Green and White are now 5-4 against WKU all-time.
“Everyone talked about this as a rivalry,” Holliday said. “It’s a rivalry now, because we won this game. It’s a tremendous rivalry between two excellent programs and I thought that was a well-played, extremely physical football game. I’m proud that we came out on top.”
Collectively, Western Kentucky and Marshall have represented the East Division in the Conference USA title game in each of the last four seasons.
For the game, Marshall held a 22-to-21 advantage in first downs, despite being outgained 368-to-334 in total offense. MU held a 144-to-34 edge on the ground, however, leading to a 13:28 time of possession advantage.
The hosts were 7-of-16 on third down conversions, while the guests were 4-of-11. Both teams were 1-of-2 on fourth-down tries. MU was penalized seven times for 69 yards, while WKU was sent back six times for 63 yards.
Behind an offensive line that started three freshman, King ran for 102 yards and one touchdown on 22 tries, while Davis added 41 yards and one score on 21 carries. Chase Litton — who was 17-of-28 passing for 190 yards — earned a net of four yards over four carries.
Willie Johnson and Nick Mathews each hauled in four passes for the hosts, gaining 48 and 46 yards respectively. Ryan Yurachek hauled in three passes for 38 yards, stretching his streak of consecutive games with a reception to 39.
Obi Obialo caught two passes for 22 yards, while Davis had two receptions for 14 yards. King caught one pass for 21 yards, while Tyre Brady had one one-yard catch before leaving with an injury.
Hancock and C.J. Revis led the MU defense with nine tackles each, followed by Johnson and Malik Gant with seven apiece. Hancock, Ryan Bee and Ty Tyler each had a sack for the Herd defense, with Bee earning a team-best two tackles for a loss.
White was 28-of-41 passing for 334 yards and three touchdowns for WKU. D’Andre Ferby led the guests on the ground with 39 yards on 13 carries, while Echols-Luper hauled in a game-high nine passes for 99 yards and one touchdown.
Marshall returns to the gridiron at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Texas San Antonio. WKU will host Middle Tennessee on Friday at 8 p.m.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.