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Marshall quarterback Luke Zban filled in admirably when Herd starter Grant Wells went down with an injury early in the second quarter against Western Kentucky.

HUNTINGTON — Just one play.

That’s all it takes to change the complexion of an entire game.

Only one play.

That summarizes Marshall University’s 53-21 loss to Western Kentucky on Saturday before about 13,000 frigid fans in Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

So, what happened?

That one play happened, that’s what. Until then, the game couldn’t have gone better for the Thundering Herd. Redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells was utterly outdueling the No. 1 QB in the nation, WKU’s Bailey Zappe, and Marshall had a 14-0 lead to show for it just 38 seconds into the fourth quarter.

MU offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey was completely “outcalling” the Hilltoppers’ celebrated play-caller, Zach Kittley, by a significant margin.

The Herd was doing whatever it wanted whenever it wanted. The game couldn’t have been going any better for MU. Why, Marshall’s fans could almost taste that Conference USA East Division championship.

Then, it happened.

With 10:01 remaining in the second quarter, Wells was scrambling out of the pocket toward the right side, as he looked downfield for an open receiver. That’s when Hilltoppers’ defensive end DeAngelo Malone sacked Wells hard from behind.

Wells never saw the 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior coming. Malone hit Marshall’s quarterback so surprisingly hard, Wells’ mouth piece flew out of his mouth and landed several yards downfield.

So did the football.

Wells’ fumble bounced laterally until Western Kentucky defensive tackle Brodric Martin fell on it. That’s when the game ended for all intents and purposes.

Oh sure, WKU didn’t even get on the scoreboard for another 1:56 on a 41-yard field goal to cut Marshall’s lead to 14-3. But the die was cast when MU backup quarterback Luke Zban trotted onto the field while Wells walked toward the locker room in the Shewey Building.

There still was 8:05 remaining in the second quarter and another entire half to play, but everybody in “The Joan” knew the game was essentially over.

Not that Zban didn’t compete. He most certainly did. The redshirt sophomore completed 16 of 25 passes for 123 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown pass to Shadeed Ahmed, but he simply doesn’t possess the same caliber of arm as Wells.

As a result, Western Kentucky scored 36 unanswered points at one point.

And Wells?

He made a cameo appearance at the beginning of the second half, leaning against the wall of the Shewey Building, which was captured on the Jumbotron at the south end of “The Joan.”

But the obviously hurt Wells never returned to action. His ailment? An educated guess is an injury to his ribs when Wells was hit from behind by Malone.

That led to a very unsatisfying end of the 2021 regular season.

When Wells led Marshall to an overwhelming 14-0 lead over Western Kentucky, it looked like the Herd was a cinch to win six of its last seven games and capture the C-USA East Division title.

But all the air went out of that balloon when Wells was injured early in the second quarter.

That’s no way to end a season.

But that’s how much impact one play — just one play — can have on a game.

Just ask Grant Wells.