HUNTINGTON — For nearly 25 minutes of game time on Saturday, Middle Tennessee appeared to be the better team against nationally ranked Marshall.
The Blue Raiders were shutting down the Thundering Herd’s rushing attack and Middle Tennessee hung around with the Herd.
All that changed in a five-minute span between the first and second halves, though.
Marshall’s opportunistic defense produced three turnovers, which led to 21 points in the Herd’s 42-14 blowout as MU commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Marshall plane crash with a win.
“That defense just continues to do such a great job,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said.
Two of those turnovers came within a three-minute span — one late in the first half and one to start the second half. Both ended in touchdowns that turned a close game into the sizable margin seen at game’s end.
Marshall quarterback Grant Wells connected with Hayden Hagler on a 1-yard score with 3:08 left in the second quarter to break a 7-all tie.
Less than 90 seconds later, the game’s complexion changed for good.
Middle Tennessee was driving behind quarterback Asher O’Hara, but the Herd defensive front got to O’Hara as Darius Hodge forced a fumble that Tavante Beckett recovered at the Middle Tennessee 45, which set up a touchdown pass from Wells to Corey Gammage with 32 seconds left that produced a 21-7 cushion at halftime.
On the defensive play, Marshall defensive end Koby Cumberlander got pressure off the edge and tripped up O’Hara, but the talented Middle Tennessee quarterback kept his feet long enough to escape to his left.
However, Marshall defensive end Darius Hodge never quit on the play, working all the way from the opposite side of the field to jar the ball loose as O’Hara went to throw. Beckett was there to find the football.
“For [O’Hara], you know he likes to scramble around and make plays, so we just wanted to make a play on him,” Beckett said. “Darius got the strip-sack on him. You don’t see him lose the ball too many times, but he lost it and I just tried to take it to the house.”
Gammage’s score with 32 seconds left before halftime turned what had been a 7-all struggle into a two-score lead at the break, which changed the mentality for both teams.
With the pressure on Middle Tennessee, Marshall again got a big play from its defense to start the second half when Nazeeh Johnson made up for a bad angle when he worked back to the football following a catch by Middle Tennessee wide receiver Marquel Tinsley.
Johnson punched the ball out and recovered at Marshall’s 8-yard line, ending a scoring threat and taking the air out of Middle Tennessee’s sidelines.
“It was supposed to be my play to make,” Johnson said. “I just misjudged the ball and I didn’t undercut it right, so I had to make a play because they were going to get a first down regardless.
“[Derrek] Pitts had stopped him and I saw the ball poke out, and I just did what we do in practice. Practice makes perfect and it results in a turnover. It was huge for the defense.”
Four plays later, Wells connected with Gammage again on a 28-yard touchdown pass that ended any threat of an upset.
In the span of under seven minutes of game time, the score went from a 7-all grinder to a 28-7 lead for Marshall, based on the Herd defense making plays.
Johnson said playmaking ability and chemistry among the defense are key attributes that make Marshall, now ranked No. 15 in both the Associated Press Poll and Amway Coaches Poll, so special on the defensive side.
“We’ve got a very fast defense, so you can take a shot knowing your brother is right behind you to assist you,” Johnson said.