MCGILL: Historical day as Marshall beats nationally ranked App State

Special to HNN Provided by Herd Zone

By Chuck McGill

HerdZone.com

Huntington– History was made at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Saturday.

In so many ways.

Marshall defeated No. 23 Appalachian State, 17-7, in a front of a prime-time nationally televised audience on CBS, the Thundering Herd football program's first win against an FBS Top 25 team in 30 seasons of the stadium's existence. It was Marshall's first win against a ranked team in 17 years, and first win against a Top 25 team here in Huntington in 44 years.

How'd this all unfold in front of the eyes of the nation? Well, that requires historical context, too. The visiting Mountaineers – the Sun Belt champions the past three seasons – were held to their fewest points since moving from FCS (formerly I-AA) to FBS in 2014. Offensively, App State's 96 rushing yards were the fewest for the North Carolina-based program in the past six seasons. Defensively, the Mountaineers have won 29 consecutive games when surrendering fewer than 200 rushing yards, but Marshall knocked that statistic out of relevance with 216 yards on the ground.

Whew. No wonder 11th-year Herd head coach Doc Holliday, who won his 80th career game, received an ice bath in the twilight of the fourth quarter.

That made for one damp polo shirt … and perhaps some watery eyes.

"I could cry," Marshall running back Brenden Knox said. "I was just telling the offensive line, the defense, this is something you can talk about – once you leave here – for the rest of your life. Not many people get to do that. Being able to knock off a Top 25 team, that's what people dream about."

That the victory came on America's Most Watched Network was a bonus.

"It's not only huge for our football program, but it's huge for our school and our community," Holliday said. "Marshall is a special place. This team is a special team that means a lot to our fan base and our community.

"I think we only had 13,000 (fans) or whatever we had there, but they were loud and proud. The last two weeks we've played, they've been there from start to finish. Just so proud of the fans the way they showed up and the way they showed off … we sure heard them and they were a big part of that game."

Officially, the attendance was 12,050, although it's hard to fault Holliday for believing more of the Herd faithful was in the building to witness history.

The fans had plenty to cheer about right away, as the Marshall offense engineered a quick scoring drive to take a 7-0 lead. The Herd put together a seven-play, 51-yard drive in two minutes and 31 seconds, mostly on the back of Knox.

The 6-foot, 233-pound junior started the drive with a season long 21-yard run, then tacked on rushes of 9, 15, 2 and 2 yards, the last of which gave Marshall an early 7-0 advantage.

By halftime, Knox had passed three players on the all-time Marshall rushing list, leaping from 14th place to 11th after his 11th career 100-yard rushing game.

Appalachian State quickly answered Knox's opening-drive score, marching 85 yards on 11 plays before quarterback Zac Thomas found receiver Jalen Virgil on an 11-yard pass in the left side of the end zone to tie it at 7-7.

Those were the only touchdowns in the opening half, but Herd kicker Shane Ciucci booted a career-long 29-yard field goal with 2:28 left of the second quarter to give the Herd the lead heading into the locker room.

That held true after junior cornerback Steven Gilmore picked off Thomas to thwart a late scoring drive. Facing a third-and-9 situation, Thomas was intercepted by Gilmore in the red zone to protect the lead, and the Herd gladly took the 3-point margin into halftime.

App State never scored again, but had its chances.

Early in the fourth quarter, Thomas found tight end Mike Evans over the middle on fourth-and-1 from the Marshall 46, and with the Herd defense selling out to stop the run, Evans ran free toward the end zone. Senior safety Brandon Drayton did not give up pursuit, however, and caught up with Evans inside the 10, and after one unsuccessful try, jarred the ball loose from Evans' arm at the 5-yard line. The ball tumbled into the end zone, where senior safety Nazeeh Johnson scooped it up.

The Marshall offense then burned seven minutes and 38 seconds off the clock on a fruitless 12-play drive, and the Mountaineers' 14-play, 77-yard drive on the ensuing possession again ended without points on a missed 26-yard field goal by Chandler Staton.

From there, it was all over but the sideline ice shower.

"Anytime you get a win against a great football team is special," Holliday said. "I think our team is pretty good right now, as well. People will step up and take notice we have a shot to be a great football team."

Last season, Appalachian State's ground game was held to 97 yards during a 20-15 win at South Carolina. One has to go back to 2014 – the Mountaineers' first FBS season – to find a lower rushing output than the 96 yards allowed by the Herd on Saturday.

Last week, App State rushed for 308 yards on 50 carries in a win against Charlotte.

"I thought defensively we controlled the line of scrimmage," Holliday said. "We knew it was going to be a challenge. We knew we had to make plays."

Added senior linebacker Tavante Beckett, who had a career-high 16 tackles:

"Everybody did their job today," Beckett said. "That's why they only scored 7 points."

That's the fewest points scored by Appalachian State since a 45-6 loss at Georgia on Nov. 9, 2013.

"They played lights out," Wells said. "I heard Doc in the locker room say that was one of the best defensive performances he's been a part of, and that's one of the best I've seen."

Appalachian State (1-1) entered as one of the best FBS programs since 2015. The Mountaineers are 55-13 since their second FBS season, a win total that trails only Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State. While Marshall received two votes in last week's Associated Press Top 25 poll, Appalachian State has been on at least one ballot for 22 consecutive weeks.

Now, the question becomes if Marshall (2-0) can make a little more history: rejoining the Top 25 for the first time since 2014.

Those within the program believe the Thundering Herd deserve a long look.

"For sure," Knox said, "But we'll leave that up to everybody else."

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