HUNTINGTON — After three quarters, it appeared Marshall’s up-tempo pace could go into cruise control after the Thundering Herd took a 17-point lead on East Carolina.
Marshall head coach Charles Huff stayed on the throttle, but it was East Carolina that found its steam, scoring 21 unanswered points in the final 7:31 of playing time to earn a 42-38 comeback win over Marshall in front of 24,833 fans Friday night at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
“We weren’t able to come up with some plays in the second half,” Huff said. “I’m proud of the way the guys fought, proud of the attitude they had. It hurts, but we’ve got to move on.”
Marshall (2-1) had several missed opportunities lead to its undoing.
East Carolina’s defense struggled to stop the Herd offense all night, but Marshall had some self-inflicted issues that took points off the board — points that proved costly at the end.
Marshall quarterback Grant Wells had a big night through the air, finishing 24 of 39 for a career-high 433 yards, but had just one touchdown and two interceptions — the last of which came on his final pass, which was intercepted by East Carolina’s Ja’Quan McMillian at the goal line to end the game.
East Carolina (1-2) moved into position to win when Rahjai Harris scored on a 1-yard run to give the Pirates the lead with 55 seconds left — their first lead since early in the second quarter.
Wells drove Marshall back to the East Carolina 15, but his final pass was short of wide receiver Corey Gammage as McMillian secured the interception.
“We had a lead and we feel like we stayed steady,” Gammage said. “We didn’t keep progressing. It hurts. We’ve just got to bounce back.”
Gammage was Wells’ favorite target on the night, finishing with eight catches for 180 yards. However, Gammage also fumbled a would-be touchdown in the end zone that East Carolina recovered — one of many second-half miscues for the Herd.
Marshall led 38-21 and had possession at the East Carolina 22, looking to put the game away, but the Herd was stopped on fourth down when a fade route to Talik Keaton fell to the turf, leaving the door open for East Carolina.
Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers took full advantage, using his arm to lead ECU down close before rushing in from 5 yards out to make it a 10-point game, which set up the game’s biggest momentum surge.
Marshall still seemed comfortably in control as running back Rasheen Ali ripped off runs of 29 and 21 yards to get the Herd down to the ECU 14 with under five minutes left, but Andrew Sanders’ 31-yard field goal attempt went wide.
From there, the Herd did not see possession again until facing a deficit.
After Ahlers caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Tyler Snead on a trick play, the Pirates recovered an onside kick and Ahlers found receivers for gains of 18 and 19 yards to set up Harris’ touchdown run.
Many of those gains came with Marshall players in position to make plays, according to Huff.
“Their receivers made some great contested catches,” Huff said. “Our guys were there in good coverage and they made good catches. When you play good football teams, you’ve got to execute. They executed in some of those situations.”
Ahlers finished the game 30 of 47 for 368 yards and two touchdowns while keeping his composure against Marshall’s pressure, which got to him five times.
The teams combined for more than 1,200 yards of offense in the wild affair. Marshall out-gained East Carolina 647-571 but left disappointed on a night in which the team honored the 1971 “Young Thundering Herd.”
That team was the first to take the field after the 1970 Marshall plane crash, which came following a 17-14 loss to ECU on Nov. 14, 1970 — an event that brought Saturday’s two programs together forever.
Marshall does not have time to dwell on the loss, according to Huff. The Herd travels to Appalachian State, which topped East Carolina in the opener, on Thursday.