HERD ZONE: McGill - Herd Squanders Lead in Loss to ECU

Special to HNN Provided by Herd Zone

By Chuck McGill

Huntington – In the end, the staggering offensive numbers and big plays on both sides of the ball weren't enough.

Marshall's dynamic offensive trio – running back Rasheen Ali, receiver Corey Gammage and quarterback Grant Wells – had career days, but the Herd squandered a 17-point fourth quarter lead and fell to longtime rival East Carolina, 42-38, in the first loss of the Charles Huff era.

Marshall (2-1) had won 10 consecutive games when scoring first, but will instead need to lick its wounds entering a short turnaround for Thursday's final non-conference game – a showdown at Appalachian State.

"We didn't make enough plays today," Huff said. "That's on me, first and foremost."

Huff lamented the missed opportunities to deliver a win on the weekend honoring the Young Thundering Herd.

"It hurts," he said, "but we have to move on."

"We can't hang onto this one too long," he added.

Appalachian State, like the Herd, is 2-1. The Mountaineers' lone loss was at Miami (Florida), a 2-point defeat to a nationally ranked team. If Marshall is going to go on the road and beat App State again, as it did a year ago in Huntington, Huff said his players need to shake off Saturday night's loss and correct its miscues on the short week.

"We have to find a way to protect the football," Huff said. "It's becoming a habit and we have got to get it fixed."

Marshall had three turnovers against ECU – two interceptions and a lost fumble. The second interception of Wells' final throw of the day, picked off at the ECU 1 with fewer than 10 seconds on the clock. The fumble also came near the goalline after Wells had connected with Gammage, but the ball squirted free from Gammage's grasp and into the end zone where ECU recovered it for a touchback.

Ultimately, Marshall's 38 points and 647 yards of total offense were for naught.

Wells finished 24 for 39 passing for a career-high 433 yards and one touchdown. He also added a touchdown on the ground. Ali, already one of the nation's top scorers, ran for a career-high 189 yards and scored three times via rush. Gammage had a career-best 180 yards on eight receptions.

But while ECU scored touchdowns on its final three possessions, the Herd had a drive end on downs, another drive ended with a missed field goal and then Wells' interception that sealed the Herd's fate.

The Pirates (1-2) outscored the hosts 21-0 in the fourth quarter.

"We didn't let up; we just didn't make enough plays at the end," Huff said. "We kept the same tempo and the same game plan, but we didn't make enough plays.

"We didn't change our philosophy; we didn't say 'let's eat the clock.'"

Big plays on both sides of the ball seemed to put Marshall in position to move to 3-0.

The Herd's first big offensive play came on the opening drive when Wells found Gammage for a 49-yard gain down the right sideline, Gammage's career long reception. Following a fruitless drive, it was the Herd defense's turn, and linebacker Charlie Gray forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive back Cory McCoy to set up the Herd's first touchdown of the day.

On Marshall's second touchdown drive of the game, Wells connected with senior receiver Willie Johnson for a 36-yard gain, and Ali raced for a career long 26-yard touchdown. Wells and Gammage struck gold again before Ali's second score, a 46-yard catch-and-run on a deflected pass that Gammage hauled in before getting to the red zone.

In the third quarter, Ali flashed his open field speed on a 49-yard touchdown run to give Marshall a 31-21 lead with 10:23 left of the period. Ali, one of the nation's top scoring threats, hadn't had a run longer than 10 yards in his college career before Saturday, but scored from 26 yards and 49 yards in his multi-touchdown effort.

Gammage's career output had one blemish at the end of a 27-yard reception when he fumbled into the end zone and the Pirates recovered. But by that point, Gammage had surpassed 150 receiving yards – the first Herd player to reach that number since Tyre Brady had 162 receiving yards against UTSA in 2018.

ECU couldn't turn the miscue into points, however, as Herd defensive end Koby Cumberlander sacked Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers on third and 7 to force a punt.

The first half featured 45 combined points and 551 combined yards of offense.

Marshall put points on the board first, marching 63 yards on nine plays on the opening possession to make it 3-0, Herd. ECU quickly answered, pulling ahead when quarterback Holton Ahlers found Tyler Snead for a 24-yard touchdown pass, giving Huff his first deficit as the MU head coach.

That didn't last long, however, as Marshall pulled ahead on a 19-yard pass from Wells to Johnson, who hauled in the touchdown in the back left corner of the end zone after Wells dropped the pass into a tight window.

The Pirates regained the lead when freshman running back Keaton Mitchell bounced through a hole on the right side and raced 88 yards for a touchdown. The Marshall defense hadn't allowed a play of 30 yards or longer this season.

Down 14-10 in the second quarter, Marshall put together consecutive scores in fewer than three minutes. On the first drive, the Herd quickly covered 75 yards in five plays before freshman running back Rasheen Ali made several cuts and found the end zone from 26 yards out, the longest run of his career. That gave Marshall a 17-14 lead with 10:28 left of the second quarter, and then Ali bullied his way into the end zone from 1 yard out with 7:31 left to give the Herd a 10-point lead, 24-14.

ECU pulled within 3 points, 24-21, with 8 seconds left when Ahlers found Shane Calhoun on 2nd-and-goal from the 5.

Marshall turned its slim halftime advantage into a three-score game when Ali scored from 49 yards out with 10:23 left of the third quarter. Wells added a 6-yard touchdown run with 1:03 left of the third for a 17-point cushion.

ECU then scored with 7:31, 2:31 and 55 seconds left on the fourth quarter clock, erasing the deficit in front of a stunned crowd of 24,833.

"We'll rebound quick," Huff said. "When you put a lot of work in and you come up short, it hurts."

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).