— By David Walsh
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Old Dominion had just scored on a 70-yard dash by Kardarius Calloway to take a 21-3 lead over Marshall with 11:17 left in the second quarter.
The Thundering Herd needed a pick-me-up at that point and Jayden Harrison and the kickoff return team provided it as he returned the ball 43 yards to the home team’s 43 to wake up a slumbering offense and homecoming crowd of 22,652 fans at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Marshall covered 57 yards in four plays with its first TD coming on a 1-yard pass from Cam Fancher to tight end Cade Conley to cut the deficit to 21-10.
That would be the start of a 28-point surge, and coupled with two stops by the defense in the closing stages of the game, the Herd would outgun the Monarchs, 41-35, in its Sun Belt Conference opener on a sunny Saturday.
Marshall, 4-0 overall, returns to action next Saturday against ACC member North Carolina State in Raleigh. Game time is 2 p.m.
Herd coach Charles Huff said that kickoff return lit the fire.
“I knew we’d need to make a big play at some point,” Huff said. “The challenge stood up. It was just enough to get the guys going. We were missing opportunities. It shows we’ve got to execute.”
Fancher followed with a 22-yard TD pass to Caleb Coombs just before the half to cut the deficit to 21-17. Marshall went ahead for the first time, 24-21, on a 1-yard TD run by Rasheen Ali. Defender Elijah Alston capped the burst when he picked off a pass and returned it down the sideline 85 yards for the score and 10-point cushion with 8:03 left in the third.
Old Dominion (2-3, 1-1) wouldn’t go away. Calloway would add TD jaunts of 69 and 75 yards, the second trimming the lead to 41-35 with 8:09 left. That’s when J.J. Roberts picked off a pass and then the Herd defense made the Monarchs turn the ball over on downs on their final possession with 1:41 left to clinch the win.
“It was a gutsy performance,” Huff said. “We had to find a way to execute enough to win. We missed tackles. We made errors. It was that type of game. We made the plays when it counted.”
Jack Shields made his first start at quarterback for Old Dominion and went 11-of-23 for 95 yards, a score and had three picks. On the ground, Shields sprinted 66 yards untouched up the middle for a score on the third play of the game against a Herd defense not used to giving up big plays. That’s the longest TD run by an ODU quarterback in history. Calloway had a big day with 236 yards on just 11 runs. That’s No. 2 on the ODU single-game rushing list. The junior college transfer is a former Alabama signee. He had missed spring ball due to injury and had just five carries for 25 yards before Saturday.
“They spread you out,” Huff said of the Old Dominion offense. “We wanted them to run. It’s easier to stop. A couple of times they did a good job. You get the ball in space, you’ve got to tackle it. It’s what they did and we didn’t execute completely. You’ve got to tackle the guy.”
Fancher didn’t have the best of starts, but when the day ended he’d register a personal-best in total offense with 380 yards. He led in rushing with 102 and completed 29-of-35 for 278 and two scores against the one early pick.
“The guy’s special,” Huff said of Fancher. “ I see it every day. When teams try to take Ali away, he showed up with his legs and made good decisions. He can run. He’s efficient.”
Coombs led the receivers with eight catches for 76 yards and a TD. Mason Pierce caught five and Darryle Simmons four.
“He’s (Coombs) a guy who’s developed slowly,” Huff said. “He’s starting to show things. The transfer portal slows the process. They adjust routes and get open. They’re making strides.”
Huff had anxious moments watching the defense give up 339 yards rushing, 434 overall and one-game high in points. Those last two stops were just part of the process.
“It’s situational,” Huff said. “Have to find a way to come up with a stop. The defense showed up. Trust the process.”
Marshall had 448 total yards with 278 through the air.
Ali, who ran for 79 yards and two scores (fourth straight game with two TDs), said the team kept its cool.
“Down 21-3, rule No. 1 is don’t panic,” Ali said. “We’ll find a way. That kick return was a huge energy boost. Eli’s pick, that was nice. It’s a blessing we’re 1-0 in conference. That game is all that matters.”
Fancher is now 10-1 as a Herd starting dating back to last season. He was one of the coolest Herd players dealing with heat applied by the Monarchs.
“Everybody did what they had to do,” Fancher said. “Adversity is going to come. It’s how you handle it. My goal is to make every play work. The receivers stepped up. It’s up to me to get the ball into their hands.”
What added to Alston’s play is he is from Chesapeake, Va., and played at Oscar Smith High School. Old Dominion is located in nearby Norfolk.
“I made the read and the ball like floated a little bit,” Alston said. “Stay disciplined and read my keys. I thought don’t get tackled. I said I’ve got to go some.”
“Not seen him run that fast,” said Roberts, a transfer from Wake Forest who played at Cabell Midland High School. “We showed our resilience, what we’re made of.”
Lineman Mike Green had four tackles, a half-sack and one tackle-for-loss. His brother, E.J., is a linebacker for the Monarchs. He didn’t play, but the two did get to chat.
“We handled business at the end,” Green said.
Coombs enjoyed the coming-out day.
“I knew my time would eventually come,” he said. “We’ve put in the preparation to get where we are. We’ve got to keep going up. We’ve got a lot more to play for.”:
Marshall got its final points on a 30-yard field goal by Reece Verhoff. He got the team’s first points on a 42-yard field goal late in the first. He booted four field goals in last year’s 12-0 win.
ODU coach Ricky Rahne said his team battled, but turnovers proved to be a downfall.
“What we have to do is not make the plays that make it hard for us to win games,” Rahne said. “We had too many of those moments today. And that’s my job to fix it.”
The two schools were rival from their Conference USA days. Both joined the Sun Belt last season. The Herd is 8-1 all-time against the Monarchs.
Linebacker Jason Henderson led Old Dominion in tackles with 16. He had two for loss.
“He’s a player,” Huff said.
This was Old Dominion’s first game outside the state of Virginia.
Despite the close score, the Herd had a big advantage in time of possession and plays. Marshall ran 84 plays to 54 for the Monarchs and had the ball for 41:21 to 18:39 for the visitors.