HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The wheels fell off.
The Marshall football team will not be playing for a conference championship next weekend after a 53-21 loss at home to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Saturday afternoon.
Instead, the Conference USA East Division will be represented by WKU.
Saturday’s ballgame started pretty promising for the Thundering Herd (7-5, 5-3 CUSA East), getting a defensive stop against the Hilltoppers (8-4, 7-1) on the very first drive.
The Green and White marched down the field on their first drive, capping off with quarterback Grant Wells punching the ball in from the 1-yard line to give Marshall the lead.
After the Herd defense got a turnover on downs, Marshall extended their lead at the beginning of the second quarter, when Wells found tight end Devin Miller on a 3-yard pass in the end zone.
Things were looking up for the Thundering Herd, but the good times didn’t last very long.
Things began to unravel when Wells was hit from behind by the Hilltopper defense, causing a fumble which Western recovered.
With eight minutes left in the half, Wells walked to the Marshall locker room with an undisclosed injury, not returning for the rest of the game.
This meant the Thundering Herd would be led under center by backup quarterback Luke Zban.
Meanwhile, the Hilltoppers chipped away at the Marshall lead, with WKU kicker Brayden Narveson netting two field goals from 41 and 46-yards.
While the offense took a hit, the Herd defense kept up their crushing pace, making some big stops against the Hilltoppers.
After a 47-yard field goal try from WKU doinked off of the crossbar with 28 seconds to go, Marshall went into halftime with a 14-6 lead.
The second half was all Western Kentucky, who soon exploited holes in the Marshall defense.
Whether it was exhaustion or a loss of motivation after Wells’ injury, the Herd defense couldn’t stop the Hilltoppers from marching down the field time and time again.
The WKU scoring started when quarterback Bailey Zappe connected with wide receiver Daewood Davis for 47 yards a couple of minutes in the third quarter.
On the next drive, wide receiver Malachi Corley caught a 14-yard pass from Zappe to give the Hilltoppers the lead.
Zappe got his third touchdown pass with seven minutes to go in the third quarter, finding Davis once again on a 50-yard pass.
Narveson put the cherry on top on the Hilltoppers’ big third quarter with a 53-yard field goal to give WKU a 29-14 lead heading into the fourth.
Things didn’t improve for Marshall in the final quarter, when Zappe found wide receiver Dalvin Smith for eight yards for the Hilltoppers’ fourth touchdown of the day.
There was one lone bright spot for the Thundering Herd in the second half, when Zban connected with wide receiver Shadeed Ahmed on a 40-yard bomb for a touchdown three minutes into the fourth quarter.
However, any positive momentum that touchdown may have had was dashed, when the proceeding onside kick attempt by the Herd was returned by WKU wide receiver Craig Burt Jr. for a touchdown.
After another field goal by Narveson, the Hilltoppers got one more touchdown when defensive back Davion Williams returned a Zban interception 45 yards for a pick-6 with under a minute to go.
In total yardage, Marshall was outgained by the Hilltoppers 485-323.
Zban led the Herd in passing, accounting for 123 of Marshall’s 199 pass yards, with a stat line of 16 completions on 25 attempts.
Zappe was the only passer for the Hilltoppers going 25-48 for 328 yards.
On the ground, Rasheen Ali had 99 of the Herd’s 124 rushing yards, carrying the ball 24 times.
For the Hilltoppers, Noah Whittington led the ground attack with 69 yards on 14 carries.
Corey Gammage led Marshall in receiving, getting 48 yards on eight receptions.
On the other side of the field, Davis led WKU with 105 yards on three receptions.
The Hilltoppers will now travel to San Antonio next Friday to face the CUSA West Division champion Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners in the title game.
Meanwhile, Herd fans wait to see what bowl game Marshall will compete in.
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Colton Jeffries can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.