HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — After losing its top two receivers in the first quarter, Marshall turned to a ball-control offense to reel off 20 unanswered points and defeat Western Kentucky 30-23.
The Herd (7-3, 4-2 C-USA), wearing black uniforms to commemorate the anniversary of the 1970 flight crash, finished with a 12-minute edge in time of possession.
“This was a really emotional game for us,” said said coach Doc Holliday. “I am happy for our fans and happy we were able to honor the 75 the way we did.”
Marshall beat WKU (5-5, 3-3) without the help of receiver Tyre Brady, who was injured on the first play. Marcel Williams also exited the game in the first quarter.
While Willie Johnson made his usual contributions by pulling in four catches for 48 yards, more surprising was the play of receiver Nick Matthews, who saw his first live action of the season.
Matthews made a 16-yard third-down catch before the half that led to a 13-7 lead.
“We lost our two go-to guys,” said quarterback Chase Litton, who threw for 190 yards and an interception Saturday. “The guys who got their shot stepped up. Nick Matthews, he should be in here right now (getting interviewed). The play he made on third down, that is a big-time play that kept us on the field and kept the drive going.”
Matthews ended his night with four catches for 46 yards.
“He had a great game, hats off to him,” said Litton.
Marshall relied heavily on the ground game as Tyler King and Keion Davis split 43 carries. King rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown on 21 attempts, while Davis added another 41 yards and a crucial touchdown on fourth-and-goal.
“Everybody stepped up and did what they were supposed to do so we could get this win,” said King. “It all worked out.”
King, who is in his first year with Marshall, said he could tell how much this game meant to the program and community.
“Seeing how serious the fans, community, and coaching staff took it and hearing about what happened, it gives you chills,” said the freshman running back.
Freshman walk-on Nazeeh Johnson made the defensive play of the game. He jumped a comeback route and picked off WKU quarterback Mike White, returning the interception 45 yards for the touchdown.
“It is a blessing for them to trust me this much and put me on the field, the path of the walk-on is hard but it is humbling,” said Johnson. “To make a play like that and make such a big impact on the game, I can’t even explain the feeling.”
Linebacker Chase Hancock and cornerback C.J. Reavis were tied for the team lead with nine tackles each and the defensive front made three sacks. Linebacker Jaquan Yulee forced a fumble on a kickoff return that Hancock was able to recover.
Kicker Kaare Vedvik played a crucial role in special teams converting three field goals, two of which were 40-plus.
WKU’s White threw for 334 yards, three touchdowns and one interception despite being hurried 15 times.
“That quarterback, he was (league) player of the year a year ago,” said Holliday. “He can throw it.”
Receiver Cameron Echols-Luper pulled in nine catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Quin Jernighan caught two touchdowns.
On the ground the Hilltopper’s ended the night with just 34 yards.
“We are in a rut right now obviously, we have lost three straight,” said WKU first-year coach Mike Sanford. “Basically we have to hit the reset button.”
Linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe led WKU on defense with 15 tackles and a forced fumble. Devon Key picked off quarterback Chase Litton in the endzone, while defensive lineman Ben Holt and Devin Overstreet each found Marshall’s quarterback in the backfield for a sack.
There was no love lost between the two conference rivals Saturday as Marshall and WKU combined for a series of unsportsmanlike conduct flags.
“They don’t like us, we don’t like them. We hate each other really, but it is all in the love of the game” said Hancock. “They are a good team, and we haven’t beaten them in quite a while.”
Holliday was more blunt after coming in 0-3 against the Hilltoppers.
“That wasn’t a rivalry, because we never beat their ass,” said Holliday. “Now it is a rivalry because we won that game.”
— By Troy Alexander