— By David Walsh
HUNTINGTON, W.Va — Marshal’s football team got a wakeup call Saturday at about 8:10 p.m in the form of a 10-0 third-quarter deficit to FCS member Albany.
The Thundering Herd then scored on three straight possessions to go from down 10 to ahead 21-17, and Marshall hung on to win its season opener by that margin in front of 25,101 relieved fans at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Marshall’s offense scored twice in the third after coming up empty the first two. The Herd last got blanked in an opening half last season at Troy.
Marshall continued to surge on its first possession in the fourth period to go ahead for the first time/for good. Then the defense, which led or ranked near the top of so many categories in year one in the Sun Belt Conference and nationally, recorded patented quarterback sacks on the final two plays to ice the contest. Sam Burton and TyQaze Leggs combined for the first sack and Owen Porter recorded the game-ending sack in his final home game.
Running back Rasheen Ali, who played just three games last season after getting over a leg injury, got his first TD on a 13-yard run in the third period to cut the deficit to 17-14. Marshall’s first TD of the 2023 season came on a 19-yard TD pass from Cam Fancher to Charles Montgomery earlier in the period.
Meanwhile, the Herd defense clamped down a notch on the Great Danes in the last 1 1/2 quarters. It limited the visitors to 49 total yards in the final period and 0-of-4 on third-down conversions.
Ali, the Conference USA Freshman of the Year two seasons ago when he accounted for 25 scores, finished with 137 yards on 18 attempts. Quarterback Cam Fancher passed for 268 yards and tight Cade Conley, Montgomery and DeMarcus hauled in a team-high seven passes each.
“We’re down 10-0 and there’s still time on the clock. We can still win this game,” Conley said. “I go out and do what I can do. I’m blessed they gave me this opportunity. It comes down to execution.”
Ten different receivers caught at least one pass.
“Get the ball into the playmaker’s hands,” Fancher said.
Marshall had 413 total yards on 61 plays compared to 300 for the Great Dans on 74 snaps.
“Probably the best thing that could happen to this football team,” Herd coach Charles Huff said, referring to the 2022 season-ending Myrtle Beach Bowl win, the defense and the job it did last year and the various players on Watch Lists for 2023. “That team is gone. Can’t live in the past to determine how good we are. We learned some things. Execute and we can play with anybody. If not, we don’t. Got to control your emotions and play with discipline. We did it in spots and we looked pretty good.
“You face adversity. That’s part of football and life. That’s why a lot of them are at Marshall. Make better of yourself.”
“We came together and said, ‘let’s do it,’“ Montgomery said. “It was a test. We’re too lax. We shouldn’t do that. I was a learning moment.”
It so happens Ali raced 73 yards for a score on the first play of the game only to have it called back by a holding penalty.
“Worst thing that could happen,” Huff said. “It magnified all we’ve been hearing. We didn’t panic when we were down 10-0. Could’ve folded then, close the stadium for the rest of the season. It was look, continue to stay focused. That helped us. They trusted in the system. I don’t want to get into that position too many times.”
It so happens Ali’s go-ahead score came when he broke free on a fourth-and-1 and and sprinted 30 yards for the TD.
“Rule No. 1. Never panic,” Ali said. “That first one gave me motivation. I wanted to get another one. Maybe I was pressing, thinking it might be easy. We came together.”
“He worked his tail off,” Huff said of Ali’s comeback. “Maybe he pressed. Calm down. There’s a lot of pressure on him.”
Defensive lineman Sam Burton had 2.5 sacks to tie a career high. The team collected seven.
“It was a wakeup call,” Burton said about being down 10-0. “Their quarterback made a lot of plays. When we went ahead, we fed off the energy.”
Porter finished with a career-best 12 stops.
“End of the day you win by a point that’s all that matters,” the former Spring Valley High standout said. “It was great to make that last play. Maybe we overlooked them too much. Like Bowling Green last year, except we came out with a win this time. It shocked the guys.”
Albany’s Aamir Hall picked off a pass in the fourth quarter and returned it to the Herd 46. The Great Danes would turn the ball over on downs at the 26. Then on the last Albany chance, the Herd defense rose to the occasion. Great Danes quarterback Reese Poffenbarger connected on 22-of-38 for 194 yards and ran 15 times for 37 yards, including a 54-yard TD sprint in the third when he faked a handoff and went around the right side untouched for the score and 17-7 lead with 3:31 on the clock.
In the first quarter, Albany had a first-and-goal at the 8, but after two incompletions and a sack, kicker John Opalko missed a 37-yard field goal to the left. Right before the half, he did boot a 46-yard field goal.
Albany’s two third-period scoring drives each covered 75 yards. After Poffenbarger’s 54-yard TD jaunt, the Herd responded with a 65-yard scoring drive.
Fancher has now won six straight as a starter and is 7-1 overall.
Marshall returns to action next Saturday against East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. The Pirates lost to Michigan, 30-3, Saturday. Game time is 4 p.m.
“We’ve got a lot to get cleaned up,” Huff said.
The win was No. 600 for the Marshall program. The school got win No. 1 back in 1903. The Herd is now 19-8 in season openers since 1997.