HUNTINGTON — Justin Rohrwasser kicked the game-winning field goal three times Saturday.
The Marshall kicker booted a career-long 53-yarder as time expired to give the Thundering Herd a 26-23 victory over the Hilltoppers in a crucial Conference USA East Division football game in front of 22,099 spectators for Homecoming at rain-drenched Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
WKU twice called time out just before the snap, hoping to rattle Rohrwasser, and both times the senior from Clifton Park, New York, split the uprights. Neither counted, but Rohrwasser was good again on his third attempt, sparking a celebration on the field and in the stands.
“If he had another one, he would have called it, too,” Rohrwasser said of timeouts called by Hilltoppers coach Tyson Helton. “If we can get the snap off as they blow the whistle, I always say just hold it and let me hit it. I always say kickers aren’t football players as much as they are golfers on the football team, the same form. If you get a chance to get a practice swing you can fix what you’re doing wrong.”
With the triumph, Marshall (5-3 overall, 3-1 C-USA) gained control of its own destiny in the East Division. WKU (5-3, 4-1) remains a half-game ahead of the Herd in the standings, but if both teams finish tied, Marshall wins the tie-breaker based on head-to-head competition. FAU (5-3, 3-1) clobbered Old Dominion 41-3 Saturday to remain in the race, but the Herd defeated the Owls 36-31 last week to own that tiebreaker.
WKU entertains FAU at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in what figures to be an elimination game.
Rohrwasser kicked field goals of 46, 31, 43 and 53 yards Saturday to improve to 11 of 11 on the season and break a tie with Brenden Knox for the team’s scoring lead, with 54 points.
Rohrwasser said he has pictured kicking the winning field goal many times.
“Every bus ride to a game since you were in middle school, as a kicker this is what you dream about,” said Rohrwasser, who was good from 58 yards in pregame. “I’m just lucky it happened to me.”
Herd coach Doc Holliday said he was confident Rohrwasser would make the field goal.
“I thought our offense did a great job getting in field position so we could kick that field goal,” Holliday said, noting that Marshall drove from its 13-yard line with 1:21 left to the Hilltoppers’ 36. “It was a little longer than I wanted it to be, but he kicked three of them. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of our team. It’s a big win for us.”
Marshall led 20-7 at halftime and held on.
The Herd converted turnovers to points early. On Western Kentucky’s fourth play, Kereon Merrell intercepted a trick pass by wide receiver Jacquez Sloan at the Marshall 42. The Herd then gashed Western Kentucky’s vaunted run defense, gaining 28 yards on four carries in a six-play, 58-yard drive that ended with Isaiah Green throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Armani Levias at 10:42 of the first quarter.
Merrill came up big again on the Hilltoppers’ next possession, recovering a fumble at the MU 44 when quarterback Ty Storey was sacked by Marquis Couch.
After a 2-yard loss, Green threw a 54-yard pass to Broc Thompson, then followed with a 4-yard keeper around right end for a touchdown to make it 14-0 with 6:56 left in the first quarter.
Although not a turnover, another WKU mistake set up the Herd’s next score. Cory Munson missed a 32-yard field goal wide left, giving Marshall possession at its own 20. Eleven plays later, Rohrwasser kicked a then-career-long 46-yard field goal to give the Herd a 17-0 lead with 13:30 left until halftime.
The Hilltoppers pulled within 17-7 at 4:14 of the second quarter when Gaej Walker raced 33 yards for a TD to cap a seven-play, 61-yard drive.
Marshall came right back, using a reverse pitch from tight end Xavier Gaines to wide receiver Willie Johnson for a 42-yard gain to the WKU 14. The play set up Rohrwasser’s 31-yard field goal with 34 seconds to play in the second period to make it 20-7.
The half ended with another Hilltoppers turnover as Naquan Renalds intercepted a Storey Hail Mary pass at the Marshall 4.
The Herd pushed its lead to 23-7 on Rohrwasser’s 43-yard field goal at 6:23 of the third quarter, a period during which Marshall had scored merely 10 points against FBS foes all season.
The Hilltoppers came back with a touchdown on Storey’s 2-yard sneak to complete a 10-play, 75-yard drive extended by two pass interference penalties by Herd cornerback Chris Jackson in the end zone.
Special teams, though, again failed WKU on the conversion attempt. The Hilltoppers went for 2, but as the official announcing the penalty said, “offsides on everyone but the center” nullified Kyle Fourtenbary’s catch and trot into the end zone. WKU then opted to kick the extra point, but Munson missed left, leaving the score 23-13.
Munson somewhat redeemed himself at 12:10 of the fourth quarter with a 27-yard field goal to pull the Hilltoppers within 23-16.
WKU tied it with 6:19 left in the fourth period when on third-and-4 from the 16, Munson raced through the middle for a touchdown and Munson made the extra point.
“We knew this game would come down to one or two plays and it came down to one,” Holliday said.
Green completed 20 of 31 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown, with no interceptions. Storey was 13 for 43 for 292 yards and one pick.
Western receiver Lucky Jackson tied a 50-year-old school record with 16 receptions, but most were short as he finished with 168 yards. Walker ran for 102 yards.
Knox led Marshall’s rushing attack with 84 yards on 19 attempts. Levias caught 10 passes for 77 yards and one TD.
Marshall returns to action at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Rice (0-8, 0-4 C-USA West).