Ali leads Marshall to 49-28 win at Charlotte

— By David Walsh

Marshall did what it had to do Saturday to remain in the hunt for a Conference USA East Division crown.

Rasheen Ali ran for three scores, more than 200 yards to go over 1,000 for the season, Grant Wells rebounded with two TD tosses and the defense stepped up big after the first period to power the Thundering Herd past Charlotte, 49-28, in front of 13,211 fans at Jerry Richardson Stadium in Charlotte.

The win sets up a showdown for the East title next Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium when current East leader Western Kentucky visits for the regular-season finale. The Herd (7-3, 5-2) must defeat the Hilltoppers (7-3, 6-1) to win the crown and advance to the C-USA Championship game on Dec. 3 in Texas.

Nationally-ranked and unbeaten UTSA scored on its final play with three seconds left to edge UAB, 34-31, to lock up the West crown and home field for its first time in the C-USA title game.

Western Kentucky did its part earlier Saturday with a 52-17 win over Florida Atlantic at home. Hilltoppers quarterback Bailey Zappe threw for 470 yards and six touchdowns. The encounter next Saturday could turn into a shootout as these two schools have two of the most potent offenses in the league.

“Really proud of the guys,” first-year Herd coach Charles Huff said. “We had a rough week last week. I challenged the guys to be more consistent in execution. They did it in spurts.”

The day ended for Ali and Wells early in the fourth period. Ali gained a career-high 203 yards and scored three times. Wells completed 21-of-28 passes for 267 yards and two scores. The Herd finished with 588 total yards a week after gaining fewer than 300 in a home loss to UAB.

Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds came out midway through the final period. He completed 19-of-34 passes for 176 yards and three scores. The 49ers had 119 rushing and 364 total yards.

“I challenged the O-line, tight ends and wide receivers to be better in execution,” Huff said. We did a better job running the ball. Better on third down. A lot better than last week. First-down efficiency creates better third-down situation improvement.

“The O-line accepted the challenge. Hard love, hard coaching. Asked them to take a look at film and could they take pride in their performance on film? Covered guys up, got movement and did a good job of protecting Grant.”

Charlotte scored on its opening drive, going 75 yards in 16 plays with Reynolds tossing a 6-yard TD pass to Keith Pearson. The 49ers converted three times on fourth down on this drive and went 6-of-6 on fourth down for the day.

Marshall responded with a 75-yard TD drive with Ali scoring on a 25-yard run. The freshman added scoring runs of 5 and 4 yards before the half to give Marshall a 21-14 lead at the break.

“We have figure out a way to start a little faster,” Huff said. “We’ve struggled with that all year. There were periods in the game we were really good. Got some things to clean up and get ready for next week.”

Ali surpassed 1,000 yards on a 15-yard run in the second period. He’s the 13th player in Herd history with 1,000 yards and third freshman to do it. The others were Doug Chapman and Ron Lear. His three scores give him 20 rushing TDs and 22 overall on the season. Jackie Hunt (1940) leads in touchdowns rushing for a season with 26 and Chris Parker is next with 23.

“He’s a special kid,” Huff said of Ali.

Six different receivers caught at least one pass for the Herd. Gammage led in yards with 3 for 78. Talik Keaton returned to action and snared four for 35. Nazeeh Johnson came back on defense and had a pick.

Marshall took the lead for good when Wells connected with Corey Gammage for a 64-yard strike with 3:26 left in the second period. His other TD pass went for 22 yards to tight end Xavier Gaines.

“The part I was most proud of is how many times did he check it down, take off running to keep drives alive,” Huff said of Wells. “Being efficient is the unseen part. When the O line is having a good day, you can run on third down. The big shots will come.”

Huff knows the Herd must get after Zappe next week the way it did Reynolds on Saturday. And tighten up on coverages and avoid pass interference calls.

“Tried to affect his decision making,” Huff said. “In the second half the leaders on the team stood up. Made slight adjustments to the game plan. Make him see something a little different. You get the ball out quick, it’s hard to do. Told the D line to cage him and get him off his spot.

“Everybody rallied this week and put us back on track.”

Charlotte (5-6, 3-4 C-USA) visits Old Dominion next week. The winner of that game will become bowl eligible.

Huff knew the Herd must improve on third-down conversions after going 1-of-12 against UAB. Marshall converted on 8-of-12 Saturday. Charlotte went 4-of-14.

Once again, the Herd vs. Hilltoppers contest will have its rewards for the winner.

“They’re all big. They all count,” Huff said. “Find ways to be consistent in our execution, take pride in your performance and be able to translate it through preparation.”

This was Charlotte’s 100th game in program history. They are 36-67. They conclude this season with a 4-2 home mark. Marshall now leads this series 4-2.

The promotion Saturday as Touchdowns for Turkeys. For every Charlotte TD (four), Harris Teeter donated 10 Thanksgiving meals to Second Harvest Foodbank of Metrolina.

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