HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — This one was not wire-to-wire, but at least it didn’t end up going down to the wire either.
It took five games for an opponent to take a lead, but the Marshall football team countered with 13 unanswered points in the second half and ultimately remained unbeaten Saturday following a 20-9 Homecoming victory over Florida Atlantic in a Conference USA East Division matchup at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The Thundering Herd (5-0, 3-0 CUSA East) — who entered the game ranked 22nd in the Associated Press poll — found themselves staring at a 9-7 deficit early in the third quarter, but the hosts needed only 1:48 to reverse things on a more permanent basis the rest of the way.
Vladimir Rivas had just converted a 43-yard field goal at the 8:12 mark of the third for a 2-point edge, but the Green and White needed only four plays to cover 81 yards on their eventual game-clinching drive.
Artie Henry hauled in a 41-yard scoring pass from Grant Wells with 6:24 remaining, giving MU a 14-9 cushion.
Shane Ciucci added a 35-yard field goal with 3:13 left in the third for a 17-9 lead, then Cuicci tacked on a 22-yarder with 10:53 left in regulation to make it a 2-possession advantage.
The Owls (1-1, 1-1) were forced to punt on their ensuing drive and turned the ball over on downs during their final possession of the game, giving Marshall the ball at its own 17 with 3:42 remaining.
The Herd picked up a pair of first downs while running six plays, which ultimately took the clock down to all zeroes while collecting the program’s eight consecutive Homecoming victory.
Marshall — which is now 65-45-8 alltime in Homecoming contests — also improved to 7-1 alltime against FAU, including three consecutive triumphs.
After trading punts on their opening possessions, the Herd established the first lead of the game with a 5-play, 79-yard drive that ended with Brenden Knox barreling over two defenders at the goal line to complete a 58-yard touchdown pass from Wells.
The Knox score gave the hosts a 7-0 advantage at the 5:40 mark of the first quarter.
Florida Atlantic countered by picking off a Wells pass a minute into the second frame, then pieced together a 12-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a Malcolm Davidson 11-yard touchdown run.
Rivas, however, had his extra-point attempt blocked by Josh Ball, allowing MU to retain the lead at 7-6 with 5:10 remaining until halftime.
Despite finishing minus-1 in turnover differential, Marshall still effectively used a steady mix of offense and a stiff defensive effort to survive this grinding affair.
As MU coach Doc Holliday noted afterwards, the grind was one of the more rewarding points of this outcome.
“Sometime at some point in the season, you have to grind one out and that was this game. Defense played lights out again. Just so pleased with our team to get that victory and go 5-0,” Holliday said. “When a defense can hold a team to nine points, you’ve got a shot at winning. We got to keep getting better. At the end of the day it’s a ‘W’. We’re happy where we are and we’re still right on track.”
Marshall claimed a 19-17 edge in first downs and outgained the guests by a 385-234 overall margin in total yards of offense, including a 251-148 advantage through the air.
FAU was penalized 11 times for 126 yards, while the hosts were flagged seven times for 65 yards. The Herd had all five sacks in the game, but the Owls produced the only points off turnovers.
Knox churned out his fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing effort with 101 yards on 25 carries.
Wells completed 18-of-31 passes for 251 yards that included two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Corey Gammage led the Marshall wideouts with six catches for 79 yards, while Henry hauled in five passes for 75 yards.
Tavante Beckett led the MU defense with 13 tackles. Brandon Drayton picked off a pass in the second quarter.
Davidson paced FAU with 62 rushing yards on eight attempts. Nick Tronti completed 18-of-30 passes for 148 yards and was picked off once. Jordan Merrell led the receivers with five catches for 48 yards.
Chase Lasater led the Owls with 13 tackles. Jordan Helm and Teja Young each picked off a pass in the setback as well.
Marshall — which is now in sole possession of first place in the CUSA East Division standings — returns to action Friday night when it travels to Florida International for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
© 2020 Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.