HERD ZONE: Hot Start Fizzles, Herd Awaits Bowl Fate

By Chuck McGill

Huntington – There were statistical anomalies in Saturday's first half that would seem to forecast a favorable result for the Marshall football team.

College football's No. 1 passer, Bailey Zappe, exited the first quarter with 17 passing yards. Jerreth Stearns, far and away the leading pass catcher in the nation, didn't register his first reception until 5 o'clock real time – about 90 minutes after kickoff. Visiting WKU, fifth among FBS teams in scoring offense at 42.4 points per game, did not score an opening half touchdown for the first time this season.

But at the end of four quarters on a cold, late November evening at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, it was the Hilltoppers who celebrated here on the turf as the Conference USA East Division champions while Marshall, at 7-5 overall and 5-3 in league play, will await its bowl fate. WKU will travel to UTSA on Friday to battle for the conference championship after a decisive 53-21 win.

The Herd seemed to be a team of destiny from the opening kick. As Zappe struggled to a 4-for-14 start passing, it was MU quarterback Grant Wells who looked like the better of the two C-USA signal callers. Wells completed his first 10 pass attempts and guided the Herd on a pair of touchdown drives that saw the hosts build a 14-0 lead with 14:22 left of the second quarter.

Wells scored the first of those touchdowns on the ground, bullying his way into the end zone from 1-yard out. He sailed a pass under duress for the second score, a 3-yard lob that was caught by tight end Devin Miller.

The good fortune ended there.

Eventually, Wells was forced from the game and the Hilltoppers pounced on the opportunity. WKU kicked a pair of field goals before halftime to make it 14-6 at intermission, and then Zappe and the No. 3 total offense in college football got rolling.

The Hilltoppers' first touchdown drive took all of 23 seconds – a two-play, 58-yard drive that ended with Zappe finding Daewood Davis for a 47-yard touchdown with 13:41 left of the third quarter. That shrunk the Herd's lead to 1 point, 14-13.

Next, Zappe connected with Malachi Corley on a 14-yard strike that put the Hilltoppers ahead for the first time, 20-14, with 9:10 left of the third quarter.

Zappe and Davis combined again later in the third on a one-play drive that covered 50 yards and took only nine seconds. WKU suddenly led 26-14 with 7:28 left of the third quarter – a 20-0 scoring burst that spent only seven minutes and 32 seconds of the clock. Overall, the Hilltoppers outscored the Herd 23-0 in the third quarter after Marshall had outscored its previous 11 opponents 80-13 in the third.

WKU scored 36 unanswered points before the Herd found the end zone again, as backup quarterback Luke Zban found receiver Shadeed Ahmed for a 41-yard touchdown. That made it 36-21 with 12:23 left, but WKU scored 7 seconds later to again make it a 22-point game. After Marshall's early 14-0 lead, the visiting Hilltoppers outscored the hosts, 53-7.

After completing his first 10 passes, Wells finished the day 10 of 14 for 76 yards and one touchdown against no interceptions.

Herd running back Rasheen Ali continued his record-breaking season, rushing 24 times for 99 yards to set the school record for rushing yards by a freshman. Doug Chapman previously held that mark, rushing for 1,238 yards in 1996.

Zban completed 16 of 25 passes for 123 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore receiver Corey Gammage and Ali shared the team lead with seven receptions, while Gammage led the way with 44 receiving yards.

Senior linebacker Abraham Beauplan, who was honored prior to the game with 23 other seniors, led the way with 11 tackles. He also had a tackle for a loss. Fellow senior Brandon Drayton added 10 tackles.

Chuck McGill is the Assistant Athletic Director for Fan/Donor Engagement and Communications at Marshall University and a nine-time winner of the National Sports Media Association West Virginia Sportswriter of the Year award. In addition to HerdZone.com's Word on the Herd, McGill is the editor of Thundering Herd Illustrated, Marshall's official athletics publication. Follow him on Twitter (@chuckmcgill) and Instagram (wordontheherd).