Defense leads the way for Marshall in 26-12 win at James Madison

— By David Walsh

Marshall’s defense displayed its stingy image again.

Freshman Cam Fancher made his first start at quarterback for the Thundering Herd, but not to worry, as Khalan Laborn went over 100 yards rushing for the seventh straight game and over 1,000 for the season to go with two touchdowns.

That combination proved too much for James Madison as the Dukes saw Marshall spoil homecoming, 26-12, Saturday in front of a record crowd of 26,159 fans at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Va.

Marshall, with its first Sun Belt Conference win, is 1-2 in the league and 4-3 overall. James Madison suffered its second straight defeat and is 5-2, 3-2 in the league.

James Madison turned to backup quarterback Billy Atkins with starter Todd Centeio out with an injury. It wasn’t immediately clear right after the game why Centeio was forced to sit out. The transfer from Colorado State suffered a shoulder injury Sept. 24 in a win at Appalachian State. The Dukes have an open date next week.

Atkins, a freshman, endured a long afternoon as he completed just 13-of-35 passes for 164 yards and a score, but had four picked off to go with a fumble. The Dukes finished with a season-low 247 total yards to go with the fewest points it’s scored in a game this season. They were No. 6 in the nation coming in with a 519-yards per-game average.

Marshall is now 3-0 overall against James Madison, which suffered just its third home loss since 2016 (46-3).

The Herd defense held top Dukes rusher Percy Agyei-Obese to 96 yards and leading receiver Kris Thornton to four receptions for 47 yards.

“This is a big win for us,” Herd coach Charles Huff said. “The defense bowed its neck. The offense made plays when it had to. We’re starting to get our wheels out of the mud.”

On defense, end Owen Porter, who played at Spring Valley High School, totaled nine tackles with 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker Charles Gray picked off two passes and Andre Sam and Micah Abraham each had one.

“I challenged the D line to get pressure and they’d have to get the ball out quicker,” Huff said. “Focus on details. They trusted the plan.”

On offense, workhorse Laborn, who came to the Herd from Florida State via the transfer portal, got the call 31 times for 151 yards and two scores. His first, a 61-yard dash in the second quarter, is the longest run against the James Madison defense this season. The previous high was 24 in a game against Appalachian State. That score cut the Herd deficit to 12-9 at the half. His 18-yard sprint late in the fourth put the game away. His season output now totals 1,002 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Fancher, a southpaw, completed 15-of-31 passes for 159 yards, a TD and had two picked off. He ran nine times for 22 yards. Corey Gammage led the receivers with five for 107 yards (72 yards after catch) and a 57-yard TD pass. Marshall generated 326 total yards.

“Fancher came in a tough environment,” Huff said. “He handled what we asked him to do.”

James Madison took a 12-2 lead in the first period on a Camden White 35-yard field goal and 17-yard TD pass from Atkins to Zach Horton. On the extra point, Damion Barber blocked the kick and E.J. Jackson grabbed the ball and rambled 85 yards for a two-point score.

“Teams need momentum,” Huff said. “That play did it for us.”

Fancher’s TD pass to Gammage put the Herd ahead to stay 16-12. Rece Verhoff added a field goal and Laborn’s TD wrapped things up.

Marshall punter John McConnel averaged 40.5 yards on 10 punts. Sam Clark had a 42.5 average for 12 punts.

Georgia Southern handed Old Dominion its first Sun Belt loss and put Coastal Carolina atop the East at 3-1.

Marshall entertains Coastal Carolina at 7 p.m. next Saturday for its homecoming at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

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