Since moving from Division I-AA, Marshall football has fallen under the old saying, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride," when a team from a power conference visits Huntington. Sunday afternoon, Marshall's Tiquan Lang changed that statement after hauling in two pick-sixes and collecting a team-high 17 tackles as Marshall (1-0) defeated Big Ten member Purdue (0-1) 41-31 in front of a near sell-out crowd at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Purdue's Austin Appleby had his first pass of the game taken back for a touchdown as Lang jumped the route for a 27-yard pick-six and a 7-0 Marshall lead only 7 seconds into the game.
"He's a tremendous player," Herd Coach Doc Holliday said of Lang. "He's got ‘it.' You talk a lot about the ‘it' factor and he's not extremely big, he's not extremely fast, but he's a helluva football player. He makes plays and he sure did today."
Lang set a Marshall single-game record for interceptions returned for a touchdown while tying the season record. It was only the second time in the 20-year history of Conference USA that a player scored two touchdowns on interceptions.
Purdue would answer, evening the contest on a D.J. Knox 4-yard run to cap off an 11-play, 75 yard drive that consumed over four minutes.
Michael Birdsong's first career touchdown as a member of the Herd put Marshall up 14-7 after the James Madison transfer found Devon Johnson for the score. Nick Smith's 42-yard field goal gave Marshall a 17-7 lead late in the first quarter but Purdue's sluggish offense finally found its rhythm.
Purdue cut the lead to 17-14 after Appleby hit Danny Anthop for a 9-yard score just before the end of the first quarter. Marshall drove to the Purdue 20, only to have Birdsong fumble after being sacked by Michael Rouse. Purdue converted the turnover into points as Appleby capped off a 12-play, 72-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone and a 21-17 Boilermakers lead.
The turnover seemingly took the air out of the Herd's sails, with its next three possessions ending in two punts and the end of the half. Purdue overpowered Marshall in the first half, holding the football for over 18 minutes while picking up 16 first downs to Marshall's 9.
Marshall looked recharged to start the second half with Birdsong orchestrating the Herd's longest sustained drive of the game, 9-plays for 71 yards over three minutes, ending on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Yurachek and a 24-21 Herd lead.
Purdue's next drive would be Big Ten football at its best, 9-plays, 70 yards, with the drive ending on a Markell Jones 36-yard touchdown run for a 28-24 Boilermaker lead.
Marshall's defense forced a three-and-out and Hyleck Foster put the Herd in great field position with a 28-yard punt return to the Purdue 38. Birdsong and Nick Mathews missed a sure scoring opportunity forcing Marshall to settle for another Smith field goal that cut the deficit to 28-27.
Both teams closed the third quarter with less than stellar play as Appleby tossed his second interception of the day after Taj Letman picked off the errant pass as Lang delivered a big hit to the Boilermakers quarterback. Marshall took over on its own 32 only to have Birdsong's second pass on the drive picked off by Leroy Clark at the Marshall 30. Purdue failed to advance the ball in the possession and had to settle for a Paul Griggs 44-yard field goal attempt.
Griggs' kick sailed to the left, clanging off the upright and back into the end zone providing Marshall with a reprieve. From its own 27, Johnson finally sprung free for 33 yards—his longest run of the game—only to have Frankie Williams punch the ball free from behind resulting in another Marshall turnover.
Purdue once again dominated Marshall at the line of scrimmage, burning off over 5 minutes in a 15-play, 75-yard drive that stalled at the Herd 5. Griggs booted the 22-yard field goal for 31-27 lead as the Herd's defense looked lifeless and gassed.
With just over 7 minutes left in the game, Birdsong calmly marched his troops down the field on a drive that started on his own 16. Birdsong went 7-8 for 83 yards on the drive and Johnson bullied his way in from 6 yards out to put Marshall back on top 34-31 with 2:50 remaining in the contest.
Appleby advanced Purdue to its own 40, only to throw his third interception and second pick-six of the game, as Lang hauled in the 55-yard return for the score and a 10-point Marshall lead with less than 90 seconds remaining.
"I just saw the ball and the end zone," Lang said of his game-opening pick in the left flat. "We wanted to get turnovers, make an impact. The one late, I saw them trying to go deep. Really, the ball came right to me, and I had to make a play.
Purdue's fate was all but sealed after the pick-six, but Keith Baxter silenced any hopes of a comeback with his first pick of the game, Appleby's fourth.
"I thought our team showed a lot of heart and came out in the second half and played extremely well," Holliday said. "Our strength program and the way we practiced was the reason we won that football game. I thought the second half showed we were in great shape. We played extremely hard. The defense played well."
Purdue held a sizable advantage over Marshall in time of possession, holding the ball for nearly 35 minutes but converted only 10-of-22 third down attempts.
Birdsong finished 23-36 for 234 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also added 10 carries for 43 yards. Johnson finished with 11 carries for 89 yards with a rushing and receiving touchdown.
Appleby closed out the day 31-48 for 270 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. Knox rushed for 102 yards on 22 carries and a score while Jones added 72 yards on 12 carries and a score.
Marshall heads to Athens, Ohio Saturday for the 15th annual "Battle for the Bell" with former MAC rival Ohio. Purdue returns to West Lafayette, Indiana for its home opener with Indiana State Saturday afternoon.