— By David Walsh
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall kept itself in the race for the Conference USA East Division title and all but eliminated defending champion Florida Atlantic with a 31-7 win over the Owls on Homecoming Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
FAU came into the game with the No. 1 offense in the league, but the Thundering Herd limited the Owls to 359 yards, their lowest output this season. Devin Singletary, who led the C-USA in rushing last season and held the No. 1 spot in that category entering Saturday, managed just 39 on 16 carries. On third down, the Owls converted just 3-of-17 chances.
Marshall, which didn’t have a great day on offense either, took advantage of five turnovers and two missed field goals to make the majority of the 23,825 fans in attendance exit the stadium happy. The Herd picked off four passes in the win.
“I said last week (a 42-20 win at Old Dominion) was our most complete effort. I think this one topped that,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “If you play great defense, special teams have been solid and take care of the ball on offense, you’ll be OK. Creating five turnovers is huge. Do that and you’ve got a shot to win the game.”
Marshall enters its bye week with a 3-1 league mark and at 5-2 overall. FAU, which was picked to win the C-USA East in the preseason, drops to 1-2 in the league and 3-4 overall. It’s the first time FAU has been under .500 this late in the season under coach Lane Kiffin.
The Owls entered the game averaging 34.7 points and 481 yards per game. Jovon Durante, a transfer from West Virginia, led the FAU receivers with seven catches for 114 yards.
Tyler King led the Herd ground game again with 125 yards on 21 carries and one TD. Quarterback Alex Thomson completed 13-of-24 passes for 102 yards and two scores. He also ran for 50 yards on 16 attempts and one TD.
“He seemed more mature,” Holiday said of Thomson, who came in as a graduate transfer from Wagner, battled shoulder issues and saw redshirt freshman Isaiah Green win the starting job. “He grew up more today. He did what we had to do to win.”
Marshall led 10-7 at the half, then scored twice in the third quarter for a 24-7 cushion. King ran 17 yards for the first score and Thomson hooked up with Armani Levias for a 15-yard TD. Prior to that TD, the Owls had a fourth-and-1 at their 13-yard line, went for it and didn’t make it.
Thomson then hit Levias for the score on the first play. Thomson also scored on a 3-yard run win 1:35 left in the fourth quarter, keeping the ball on a read option
“I was surprised after a bye week,” Kiffin said. “We just could not get any rhythm. I said all week they have a good defense. Credit them. They did a good job.”
Marshall’s defense put forth a dominant showing in the important win.
“They eliminated the explosive plays,” Kiffin said. “We didn’t make the plays when we needed to make them. On the fourth down, if we punt into the wind and it goes 30 yards, it does no good. We’ve done that in the past. We needed a spark.”
FAU used three quarterbacks in the game and didn’t have much success. The 7 points represent a one-game low in league play for FAU under Kiffin. Middle Tennessee had the low at 24 with a 25-24 win earlier in the season.
“It felt great,” Herd defensive back Chris Jackson said. “That’s easily a 40-point team every week. We came in Monday at 6 a.m. and made it our job to stop Singletary and make them throw the ball. He’s easily 150 yards every Saturday. We know we can’t give up more than two big plays a game. If you do, that usually means you’re in for a long night.”
In the first half, Marshall’s defense set the tone and o the last play of the first quarter, Marshall’s Artis Johnson picked off a pass and returned it 29 yards to the FAU 23.
Marshall failed to make a first down and settled for a 40-yard field by Justin Rohrwasser with 14:23 to play until halftime.
After a punt, the Owls drove 82 yards in 11 plays for a TD. Kerrith Whyte had a 29-yard run on third down for a first down at the Marshall 3. Chris Robison tossed a 2-yard to pass to tight end Harrison Bryant for a 7-3 lead with 10:52 left.
Later in the quarter, Marshall had good field position again, but faced a fourth down inside the FAU 40. Thomson took the short snap, punted and the Herd downed the ball at the 5.
After a three and out, Marshall started from the FAU 43 and cashed in this time. Thomson ran for 7 yards on the read option for a first down at the 29. On the next play, he connected with Levias for a 29-yard TD pass and a 10-7 lead with 3:26 left before halftime.
FAU had the ball at the 50 with seconds left before halftime only to have Jackson pick off a pass to end the threat and first half.
On the ground, the Herd amassed 233 yards on 48 attempts. It was the second straight game Marshall has been strong with its rushing attack and in this one it had no turnovers.
“We weren’t holding our blocks long enough,” center Levi Brown said. “We’re having more fun now and doing our job. The defense played lights out today. I’m not surprised Alex gained those yards. He’s smart and knows when to get down.”
The Herd’s next game is Nov. 3 at Southern Miss and Marshall is 3-0 on the road this season.
“Step back, catch our breath and get healthy,” Holliday said. “I like where our football team is right now.”