In what was a laboring Saturday grudge match that saw almost as many penalties committed as it did points scored, the Marshall Thundering Herd yet again found a way to win behind stifling run defense and the legs of Brenden Knox with a 17-7 final over the #23 ranked Appalachian State Mountaineers at Joan Edwards Stadium in Huntington.
Analyzing the two opening drives, even the casual college football fan could’ve assumed this one was set to be a barn burner. Reigning Conference USA MVP Brenden Knox basically handled the initial touchdown drive for the Herd by himself in seven plays, while three defensive penalties on the coinciding possession set Mountaineer QB Zac Thomas up to find Jalen Virgil for the touchdown tie for a 7-7 total early in the first quarter.
What coincided next was a failure for either team to build on anything meaningful for the remainder of the first half, with 14 of the contest’s 19 penalties committed in the first two quarters alone. Five consecutive drives ended in a punt before Marshall went heavy swing pass with Sheldon Evans, converting a 4th & 3 before failing to capitalize on an App. State personal foul, ending the drive with a 29-yard Shane Ciucci field goal.
Chasing the end of the half with an opportunity to tie or take the lead, Appalachian State drew two crucial pass interference calls on the drive keying in on the matchup between Preseason First Team All-Sun Belt WR Thomas Hennigan and Thundering Herd DB Steven Gilmore. Doc Holliday’s reaction to the second drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag putting the Mountaineers inside the red zone, before the junior Gilmore found redemption and bailed his team out with an interception at the 14 that would turn the tide for a heightened sense of momentum entering the break.
Out of 11 combined possessions between both programs in the second half, only Marshall was able to end a drive with something other than a punt or a turnover, on what was a beautiful target to Xavier Gaines that went for 67 yards over the middle, followed by a Grant Wells keeper to the outside that quickly ended a 79-yard drive in 2 plays for the 17-7 deciding score that would effectively end the game with just 4:44 to play in the 3rd.
There was a ton of hype surrounding the freshman signal-caller Grant Wells after his flashy debut over Eastern Kentucky, but with an 11/25 line going for 163 yards and an interception, the gameplan was forced to lean on the run as the freshman just needs more time to develop against top-tier competition. Brenden Knox had a whale of a day once again, using 28 carries to count up 138 yards with his lone first half score. Marshall’s veteran offensive line is full of battle-tested cornerstones and they’ve proven to be consistent in both pass protection and downhill run schemes, even with a hefty pass rush.
Zac Thomas found his tight end Mike Evans on a 4th & 1 for a 41-yard scamper deep to try and get the Mountaineers back at the end of the third quarter, but a punching effort from the Largo, FL native Brandon Drayton caused a fumble recovered by Nazeeh Johnson in the endzone for a Marshall touchback. The Thundering Herd would drain nearly eight minutes off the clock before turning the ball over on downs, making way for Appalachian to get deep into territory again before whiffing on a 29-yard field goal wide right, sealing the deal with 2:54 to play.
Marshall improves to 2-0 on the year as they gain a win over a ranked opponent for the first time since 2003, and their first win over a ranked opponent at home since beating Dick Crum’s No. 20 Miami (OH) RedHawks 21-16 in 1976. The ability to hold the Mountaineers’ rushing attack to 96 yards is a huge takeaway as the team prepares for the Moonshine Throwdown with Western Kentucky on October 10th, awaiting 2020 Doak Walker candidate Gaej Walker and the Hilltoppers.
Appalachian State falls to .500 and progresses with their 1-1 record on the young season, focusing next on NFL alum Mike Minter and his Campbell Fighting Camels next weekend in Kidd-Brewer Stadium.