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Nazeeh

Marshall safety Nazeeh Johnson makes an incomplete pass gesture after breaking up a pass during Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky at Houchens-Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky.

BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky — There is a reason that third down is called the “money down” in college football.

So far in 2020, Marshall’s football team is cashing in on that money down.

Through three games, the Thundering Herd leads Conference USA in converting third down and defending third down and is also ranked in the top 15 in FBS in both categories.

Marshall’s defense has been the most impressive of the group, limiting opponents to just 24.3 percent conversion rate on third down, which is No. 4 in FBS behind Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and South Carolina.

In a year where scoring is up around college football, that third down success has been the constant for a Marshall team tied for No. 1 in FBS in scoring defense with Air Force at 7.0 points per game.

“There’s not a whole lot of defense being played out there right now,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “I had the opportunity to watch Florida and [Texas] A&M and Texas and Oklahoma. In those games, my gosh, I’ve never seen so many people run up and down the field.

“That’s a tribute to our defensive coaches — Brad Lambert, J.C. Price, Cornell [Brown], Jordon Hankins and Pat [Bastien]. Those guys do such a tremendous job coaching those guys.”

Marshall’s defensive figure on third down improved on Saturday with the Herd limiting Western Kentucky to 2 of 12 on third-down conversions during Saturday’s 38-14 win over the Hilltoppers in the Conference USA opener.

One of those conversions came late in the game once Marshall had started substituting freely on the defensive side as well.

The Herd’s ability to get off the field on third down and limit first downs combined with Marshall’s special teams to consistently keep Western Kentucky pinned on its own side of the field, which led the Herd to a 38-0 lead.

Marshall’s average starting field position in the contest was its own 40 yard line while Western Kentucky’s average start came from its own 21.

On the offensive side, Marshall quarterback Grant Wells engineered the Herd on third down well, which has been a strong point of his throughout the first three weeks of his career.

Wells’ ability to perform on pressure downs showed as he converted six of the Herd’s first 12 third-down chances in the game.

One which stood out came on the Herd’s second scoring drive of the first quarter.

Facing a third-and-10 from the Herd’s 40-yard line, Wells stood in the pocket and found wide receiver Willie Johnson in the soft part of a zone for a 12-yard gain.

Both Wells and Johnson showcased themselves on the play. Wells stepped up and showed elite arm strength to fire the ball in a tight window with defenders converging and Johnson secured the catch over the middle while taking a big hit.

The play brought about a celebration from Johnson and the Herd later found the end zone to make it a two-score game.

While Wells converted that long attempt, much of Marshall’s 51.3 percent third-down conversion rate (20 of 39) is attributed to winning early downs. That ranks No. 14 in FBS.

Marshall’s offense has not hindered itself with negative plays or penalties, which has led to many short third-down opportunities in which the Herd can utilize its offensive line and rushing attack to move the chains.

When looking at what has keyed Marshall’s 3-0 start, it starts with the No. 3. The Herd has been better than its opponents when the down marker shows that number.