— By David Walsh
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Label it a season-extending victory for Marshall.
Quarterback Cam Fancher returned to the lineup and had an explosive afternoon to power the Thundering Herd past Arkansas State, 35-21, at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in a game it had to win to reach bowl eligibility.
Fancher, a dual threat, completed 15-of-22 passes for 214 yards and three scores and ran 18 times for 100 yards and two scores, one highlight a 63-yard dash in the second quarter, to put the Herd at 6-6, 3-5 in the Sun Belt Conference.
Fancher had missed the last two games due to a leg injury.
On defense, the Herd showed the nastiness it displayed the first four weeks when big stops were made and it broke to a 4-0 record. Saturday, the Red Wolves had a fourth-and-1 at their 33 in the second quarter, went for it and Ja’Quez Cross got thrown down for a loss of 1. The Herd sacked Arkansas State quarterback Jaylen Raynor on the final play to bring out the cheers one more time from the crowd of 18,673.
MU running back Rasheen Ali, who has been selected to play in the East-West Shrine game, carried 14 times for 56 yards and reach 1,043 for the second time in his career. He played the first half.
Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed of a script this good. The Herd will learn it bowl fate next Sunday.
“It feels good to play a game I love and become bowl eligible,” Fancher said. “My job is to make the play successful whatever I have to do. It felt good to be back out there.”
About the 63-yard run, Fancher said, “Not get caught, which I did. Secure the ball. Everyone was worried about their job only. When we’re all on the same page, you get a successful play.”
Fancher threw TD passes of 9 and 15 yards to Charles Montgomery, a 21-yarder Caleb McMillian and logged TD runs of 7 and 3 yards. Fancher’s TD toss to McMillan came after he scrambled to escape pressure and found McMillan with a soft, arching pass for a 28-0 lead with 6:15 left in the first half.
When the half ended, the Herd led 28-7 and got a rousing ovation from the crowd as it went to the locker room. Quite the contrast from the boos heard a few weeks ago against James Madison and the chastising defensive Owen Porter delivered in the postgame interview.
Fancher racked up 195 yards passing and 99 rushing in the first half of action.
“Health,” Herd coach Charles Huff said in explaining Fancher’s production. “He’s been banged up a while. The last time he was healthy, healthy was N.C. State. It changes the way defenses play. When he and Ali are healthy, you see what they mean to the game.”
Marshall piled up a season-best 493 total yards (279 rushing, 214 passing).
“It’s dangerous when you see a guy like No. 14 in our backfield,” Montgomery said of Fancher. “The goal is to finish. We made it count tonight.”
The Herd offense kept churning out the yards in the third period. Ethan Payne, who took over for Ali, ripped off a 64-yard run down to the visitor’s 3 and Fancher would run it in the next play for a 35-7 cushion with 6:58 still on the clock.
“When teams start fast they typically have more success,” Huff said. “We’ve learned a lot this year. You are what your record says you are.”
The Red Wolves got their final two scores on a 60-yard punt return by Courtney Jackson and 2-yard pass from Raynor to Jackson.
“We lost focus,” Huff said. “The score was closer than it should’ve been. We can’t play to the scoreboard.”
Huff said the defense sort of fed off the success of the offense.
“Played complementary football,” Huff said. “We score and then get a couple of stops. We stopped what they were trying to do. If the offense clicks, the defense thinks do our part, too.”
D’Yoni Hill led Marshall in tackles with eight. Ahmere Foster and Eli Neal had seven each.
“Inspired by a big reason to play for the seniors,” Neal said. “We’ve got a job to do. We played with passion. We had one more chance to send them out the right way. Now we get one more chance.”
Mike Green, member of the defensive line, said his play picked up after the loss at Georgia State. His practice habits and game-day demeanor changed for the better.
“I knew the outcome we wanted to get,” he said. “We prepared good enough to get it done. Do what you need to and you can achieve anything. I’m very excited to go to my first bowl.”
Ethan Payne, who played his high school ball at Poca, led the Herd runners with 113 yards on 19 carries. It’s the second 100-yard game of his career.
“The O-line dominated,” Payne said. “They opened huge holes anybody could run through.”
At the start of the second quarter, there was a wild play for the Herd defense. Micah Abraham broke up a pass, the deflection when to Ahmere Foster who sprinted 99 yards to the Arkansas State 1. However, after a review, it was determined Foster’s knee was down when he caught the ball and it came back to the Marshall 1. That’s when Fancher ripped the 63-yarder, threw a 21-yard strike Mason Pierce and scored on a 7-yard run on the next play.
The Herd honored 22 seniors Saturday. Eighteen made the walk onto the field.
Arkansas State is 6-6, 4-4 in the SBC. After Saturday, the SBC has 12 teams eligible for bowls if James Madison is included. The Sun Belt title game is next Saturday between East winner Appalachian State and West winner Troy in Troy, Ala. It’s the second straight year the Trojans have been host school.