HUNTINGTON — As Marshall players and coaches walked out arm in arm Saturday prior to the annual “75” game, Thundering Herd quarterback Grant Wells could feel the emotion swelling inside him.
Marshall was playing football and representing the 75 lives lost exactly 50 years to the day after the 1970 Marshall plane crash.
It took Marshall awhile to settle in after the powerful entrance, but Wells overcame the heightened emotions to throw for career highs of 336 yards and five touchdowns in the Herd’s 42-14 win over Middle Tennessee in front of 12,224 fans Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
“There were a lot of emotions, to say the least, especially coming out there like we did before the game,” Wells said. “We knew going into this week this game was going to be extremely special for not just us, but for the entire community. Having the outcome we did sure means a lot.”
The win was not as easy as the final score indicated. In fact, the game was knotted at 7-all late in the first half.
However, Marshall (7-0, 4-0 Conference USA) scored a pair of touchdowns in the final 3:08 of the first half and followed by turning a turnover into a touchdown early in the third quarter.
Wells, who finished 25 of 37 through the air, had his best throw of the game come at the most crucial time.
With the game knotted and the Herd driving, wide receiver Willie Johnson made a fingertip catch for a 44-yard gain on a Wells throw, which led to a 1-yard scoring toss to tight end Hayden Hagler.
Five plays later, Marshall got possession again as defensive end Darius Hodge strip-sacked Middle Tennessee quarterback Asher O’Hara and linebacker Tavante Beckett recovered at the Blue Raiders’ 47.
Four plays later, Wells found wide receiver Corey Gammage for a 17-yard score in the corner of the end zone that produced a 21-7 lead at the break.
Turnovers were Marshall’s best friend in the contest with 21 points coming off three Middle Tennessee fumbles. It started with Willie Johnson’s 3-yard scoring reception from Wells after a muffed punt return by Middle Tennessee’s Reed Blankenship.
Just as the Herd’s scoring in the first half started due to a Middle Tennessee miscue, so too did the second half scoring for the Herd.
With Middle Tennessee (2-6, 2-4 C-USA) driving deep in Marshall territory, Nazeeh Johnson stripped Blue Raiders receiver Marquel Tinsley to give the Herd possession at its own 8-yard line.
Nazeeh Johnson, who finished with 13 tackles, plus the forced fumble and recovery, said the performance meant a lot to players on many levels.
“It means a lot to me because I got my first start four years ago in this exact game [‘75’ game],” Nazeeh Johnson said. “This game means a lot to the community and it means a lot to me.”
Following the turnover, Wells immediately went to work with a pair of deep connections that got the Herd into the end zone.
After Willie Johnson caught a 46-yard pass to get the Herd on the Middle Tennessee side of the field, Gammage used his frame to win a one-on-one battle in the end zone for a 28-yard score that essentially put the game out of reach.
For Marshall coach Doc Holliday, the best aspect of the day was seeing Wells take the next step as a quarterback.
Middle Tennessee came in looking to stuff the run and was successful, limiting Marshall’s Brenden Knox to just 70 yards on 16 carries with many coming in the final quarter.
However, Wells took to the air and completed 14 of 15 throws during one stretch as Marshall pulled away.
“That’s when you know you’re becoming a pretty good offensive football team,” Holliday said. “Pick your poison. It’s either stop the run and you’re able to throw the football or vice versa. I thought that was a point that we grew up as an offense.”
Willile Johnson finished with career highs in receptions (eight), receiving yards (137) and touchdowns (two) while Artie Henry added 63 yards receiving and Gammage added 62 yards and two scores.
It was a needed performance for a passing attack that has been without several targets due to injury over the last few weeks.
“Everything just all came together today for the 50th anniversary,” Willie Johnson said. “It just felt great.”
O’Hara, who was a big problem for the Herd in last year’s 24-13 setback to Middle Tennessee, managed the game well but was not able to come up with big plays.
O’Hara finished 29 of 44 for 241 yards passing and a touchdown, but only had 39 yards rushing, including a 2-yard score, as the Herd defense closed in around him.
Wide receiver Jarrin Pierce led the Blue Raiders with nine catches for 90 yards, including a 4-yard pass from O’Hara that knotted the game at 7 in the second quarter.
Marshall is again at home next week as the Herd hosts Charlotte at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.