HUNTINGTON — The way Saturday’s game started, Marshall fans had plenty to cheer for.
There was little cheer left for the Thundering Herd faithful at game’s end.
Marshall quarterback Grant Wells was injured in the second quarter and Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe helped lead the Hilltoppers to a 47-point second half in a 53-21 win over the Herd in front of 19,134 fans Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
“We hit adversity tonight and I was not pleased with how we responded,” Marshall head coach Charles Huff said. “The result is the result. When you don’t execute, it’s going to be tough to win.”
Marshall ends the regular season at 7-5 overall and a 5-3 mark in Conference USA. The Herd will now await its bowl selection to find out its next opponent.
Western Kentucky (8-4, 7-1 C-USA) won its seventh straight game and will meet UTSA in San Antonio in Friday’s Conference USA championship game. The contest is a rematch of a wild regular-season meeting in which UTSA earned a 52-46 win.
The Hilltoppers used a 23-point third quarter, predicated by big plays by Zappe in the passing game and Marshall’s inability to mount offense once Wells went to the locker room.
After being limited to only two field goals in the first half, the Western Kentucky offense scored three touchdowns and added a field goal in a burst that turned a 14-6 Marshall lead at the half into a two-score lead after three quarters.
In the course of 12 offensive plays, Zappe led Western Kentucky into a two-score advantage with Daewood Davis squeezing a pair of long touchdown passes around a scoring toss from Zappe to Malachi Corley that broke the Conference USA record for touchdown passes in a season.
Zappe finished 25 of 48 for 328 yards and four touchdowns, all of which came in the second half. He now has 52 scoring tosses on the season.
The final margin was a total contrast to the start of the game after Marshall jumped out to an advantage as Wells completed his first 10 passes, which included a 3-yard scoring toss to Devin Miller that gave the Herd a 14-0 lead after Wells opened the scoring with a 1-yard run.
The Herd was looking to increase its lead and appeared on its way to doing so with Wells driving the team inside WKU territory. However, as he scrambled out of the grasp of a sack and rolled right, Wells never saw WKU defensive end DeAngelo Malone, who got a blind-side hit on him and jarred the ball loose.
The Hilltoppers took possession and Wells quickly went to the locker room to be examined. Wells returned in sweatpants to the sidelines in the second half.
Huff said there was no update available on his status following the game.
“I have not been able to check on Grant,” Huff said. “They gave me the thumbs up that he was done for the day, but he would be OK. I don’t have the full disclosed information yet.”
After Wells’ injury, Western Kentucky reeled off 36 consecutive points to seize control.
During that 36-point surge, Western Kentucky’s offense outgained Marshall’s 375-64.
“We probably had one too many big plays there in the second half, especially on defense, and then not enough offense generated,” Huff said.
Marshall’s defense came out strong in the first half, limiting the effectiveness of Zappe, who completed just four of his first 14 passes as the Herd took the 14-0 lead.
Part of that success was limiting wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, the leading wide receiver in FBS.
Sterns finished with just four catches for 28 yards, but the Hilltoppers showed their solid all-around corps of receivers with Davis finishing with 105 yards and two scores, Mitchell Tinsley hauling in nine passes for 84 yards and Corley catching four balls for 76 yards and the score that put WKU in the lead for good.
Zban finished the game 16 of 25 for 123 yards with a 41-yard touchdown pass to Shadeed Ahmed and an interception, which was returned by Western Kentucky’s Davion Williams for a touchdown late in the game.
Following Zban’s touchdown toss to Ahmed, Marshall went for an onside kick, but the kick was returned by Craig Burt for a touchdown.
Marshall running back Rasheen Ali finished with 99 yards, 88 of which came in the first half.