Marshall misses out on league title game with 53-21 loss to Western Kentucky

— By David Walsh

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall’s defense bottled up Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe and high-powered offense for a half.

Zappe, the No. 1 passer in the nation, eventually lived up to that billing in the second half and popped the cork on that bottle to lead the Hilltoppers past Marshall, 53-21, in the Conference USA East Division championship game Saturday in front of 19,134 fans at Joan C. Edwards Stadium and viewing audience on CBS Sports Network.

Zappe tossed three touchdown passes in the third period and Brayden Narveson booted a 53-yard field goal to secure a momentum-changing 23-point period. Western Kentucky chalked up 293 total yards and limited the Herd to 8. Zappe connected on 9-of-15 pass attempts.

The seventh straight win sends Western Kentucky (8-4, 7-1 C-USA) to the C-USA title game on Friday against previously unbeaten UTSA in San Antonio, Texas. North Texas upended the West Division champs, 45-23, Saturday at home.

Marshall finishes 7-5, 5-3 in the C-USA East. Three of the five defeats came at home.

Zappe finished with four TD passes to bring his season total to 52. His fourth TD pass came at the start of the fourth period. He connected on 25-of-48 for 328 yards.

“Marshall had a lot of momentum in the first half,” Hilltoppers coach Tyson Helton said. “We regrouped at halftime. Starts with the defense, offense got the big touchdown early. The momentum swung over to our side and stayed our way.”

The Hilltoppers made the big adjustments in the passing attack between halves.

“Good job by their secondary,” Helton said of the Herd. “Played man and were able to cover us. Great job by the offensive staff making adjustments. Create motion, stacks, able to get off their press and things played into our favor. We were able to create explosive plays and took the air out of them.”

The Herd’s bright spot in a disappointing second half was backup Luke Zban’s 41-yard TD pass to Shadeed Ahmed right after Zappe’s scoring toss. He took over in the second period from Grant Wells who completed his first 10 passes. Wells left the game in the second period after getting sacked and fumbled the ball away. He walked to the locker room with an undisclosed injury and did not return.

“Unable to execute,” first-year Herd coach Charles Huff said. “Defense played phenomenal the first half. One too many big plays. They put us behind a couple of scores.”

After the Zban TD pass, the Herd attempted an onside kick and Western Kentucky’s Craig Burt Jr. took the ball on the bounce after it had gone seven yards and he sprinted 43 yards for the score.

On the next kickoff, players on both sides got in some bumps after the tackle. The Herd’s Owen Porter got ejected for coming off the bench for his second ejection of the season.

“Our level of execution has to rise,” Huff said. “Adversity hit, not happy with how we responded. When adversity hits, you’ve got to respond.”

For Marshall, it’s now waits to see about its post-season bowl bid. Hopefully, Wells can return by then.

“Plans change,” Huff said. “They loaded the box, got us in third and eight, nine and 10. Got us in first-down efficiency. From a mental standpoint, you hope it would not effect us. You lose a guy like that, you’ve got to rally around the next guy. Next-man-up mentality. Move the chess pieces around, but didn’t generate enough consistency.”

In the first half, the Herd drove for two scores and kept Zappe in check.

Marshall went 79 yards in 19 plays and used 6:58 to take a 7-0 lead. Wells capped the drive with a 1-yard run. A pass interference on Hilltoppers kept drive alive and gave Herd first down at 14.

The Herd then went 57 yards in 10 plays and 3:57 for a 14-0 lead. Wells found tight end Devon Miller for 3-yard TD pass on fourth down at 3.

Marshall’s defense held the Hilltoppers in check in the first half with just 40 yards rushing and 118 passing. Bailey completed 14-of-30. The Herd totaled 205 total yards on 100 rushing and 105 passing between Wells and Zban, who came in with 8:05 left in the second period. Wells walked to the locker room and did not return

Western Kentucky managed two field goals in the second period. Narveson connected from 41 and 46 yards. He missed from 47 yards with 28 seconds left as his low kick smacked the crossbar and came back onto the field. Zappe had passed the visitors into position. After the miss, the Herd took a knee to end the half.

The Hilltoppers outscored the Herd, 47-7, in the second half. This was Helton’s first win against the Herd after two defeats. Daewood Davis led in receiving with three catches for 104 yards and two scores. Mitchell Tinsley grabbed nine for 84. The Hilltoppers finished with 485 total yards.

Herd freshman Rasheen Ali ran for 97 yards on 24 carries, but Western Kentucky kept him out of the end zone. The home team 323 yards.

Under Helton, the Hilltoppers have finished strong each season.

“We didn’t blink,” Helton said. “We said we’d come out the second half and get it done. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

UTSA handed Western Kentucky its only league defeat.

Before the game, there was a moment of silence for former Marshall baseball coach Jack Cook. He passes away earlier in the week. He was 95.

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