HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A memorable performance on an all-important day of remembrance.
The Marshall football team forced three takeaways that led to 21 points and received five touchdown passes from quarterback Grant Wells on Saturday afternoon during an impressive 42-14 victory over visiting Middle Tennessee State in a Conference USA East Division matchup at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
The Thundering Herd (7-0, 4-0 CUSA East) — who entered their annual 75 Game ranked 16th in the Associated Press college football poll — used all three phases of their craft to convincingly snap a 2-game losing skid against the Blue Raiders (2-6, 2-4). The 28-point triumph also allowed MU to remain in sole possession of first place in the East Division standings.
Even more importantly, the Green and White were able to honor the fallen members of Southern Airways Flight 932 in a fitting manner. That flight killed 75 people, including 37 players and several other staff members from the football team and university, when it crashed coming back from a contest at East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970 … exactly 50 years ago from Saturday.
”It’s a very emotional week for us but I’m just so proud of our guys. What a great day it was for the fans. It was just a great day, very special day,” MU coach Doc Holliday said afterwards. “It’s so emotional. There’s so much that goes into this week and the kids are just fired up and ready to play. A lot of stars lined up for this game.”
It was the special teams unit that helped sparked Marshall’s offensive rhythm early in the first quarter. After punting on their second consecutive drive, Micah Abraham popped MTSU punt returner Reed Blankenship just a split second after Blankenship tried to field a bouncing ball.
Blankenship was taken to the ground after touching the ball, and Joshua Bowers recovered the live ball at the Blue Raider seven with 8:02 showing in the opening frame.
Two plays and 44 seconds later, the Herd was ahead 7-0 after Willie Johnson hauled in a 3-yard pass from Wells with 7:18 left in the first period.
The score remained that way until the 11:32 mark of the second quarter as Jarrin Pierce hauled in a 4-yard pass from Asher O’Hara, capping an 11-play, 73-yard drive that tied the game at seven.
MU countered with a 6-play, 60-yard drive that resulted in a permanent lead as Hayden Hagler hauled in a 1-yard pass from Wells at the 3:08 mark for a 14-7 cushion.
Marshall’s Darius Hodge recorded a strip sack of O’Hara, and teammate Tavante Beckett scooped up the fumble recovery while giving the hosts possession at the MTSU 47 with 1:32 left in the half.
The Herd needed four plays and 60 seconds to cover the distance as Corey Gammage hauled in a 17-yard pass from Wells with 32 ticks showing, giving Marshall a 21-7 lead entering the break.
The Blue Raiders fumbled the ball away on their opening drive of the second half as Nazeeh Johnson forced and recovered the ball at the MU eight.
The Green and White needed only four plays to cover 92 yards and extended their lead to 28-7 following a 28-yard pass from Wells to Gammage with 11:32 showing in the third period.
O’Hara scored on a 2-yard run with 6:51 remaining in the third to whittle the lead in half at 28-14, but Sheldon Evans capped a 3-play, 65-yard drive with a 26-yard TD run with 5:40 left for a 35-14 advantage.
Wells found Willie Johnson with a 23-yard scoring pass with 1:48 left in the third canto to wrap up the 28-point outcome.
MU running back Brenden Knox was held under 100 rushing yards for the first time in six games and did not score for the first time all season, but that simply opened the door for Wells to have the record-setting day that he did.
The redshirt freshman became the 20th quarterback in Marshall history to throw five touchdowns in a game. Wells also set career highs in completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns in his seventh start.
Wells completed 25-of-37 passes for 336 yards and five scores, all without throwing an interception. Wells also completed passes to eight different receivers.
Willie Johnson had career highs with eight catches for 137 yards and two scores. Knox led the MU rushing attack with 70 yards on 16 attempts.
Nazeeh Johnson led the MU defense with 13 tackles, followed by Beckett with 11 stops. Hodge recorded the lone sack of the contest.
The Herd claimed a 26-18 edge in first downs and outgained the guests by a 520-303 overall margin in total yards of offense. Marshall also finished the day plus-2 in turnover differential.
The hosts were penalized seven times for 75 yards, while Middle Tennessee State was flagged four times for 40 yards. Marshall now leads the alltime series by a 6-4 overall margin.
The Blue Raiders produced only 56 rushing yards on 23 attempts, with O’Hara leading the way with 39 yards on 11 carries. O’Hara was also 29-of-44 passing for 241 yards and a score. Price led the wideouts with nine catches for 90 yards and a score.
Blankenship paced the MTSU defense with 11 tackles and D.Q. Thomas followed with 10 stops. Wayne Parks also recovered a fumble in the third quarter that led to O’Hara touchdown run.
It was the seventh straight time this season that Marshall did not allow an opponent to rush for 100-or-more yards in the game. The Herd also won their ninth consecutive home game in the process of securing the program’s fourth 7-0 start to a season since moving up to the Division I level back in 1997.
The 1998, 1999 and 2014 squads were the only other MU teams to start the year with seven straight wins after the program went unbeaten en route to the 1996 Division I-AA National Championship.
Marshall returns to action Saturday when it welcomes Charlotte for a CUSA East Division matchup at 12:30 p.m.
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Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.