HUNTINGTON Few things seemed difficult for Marshall Saturday afternoon in its season opener with Eastern Kentucky.
The Herd rolled 59-0 over the Colonels, marking the fifth shutout by Marshall over EKU since the teams first played in 1926, while recording the most lopsided victory ever in the series.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells set a Marshall record for most yards thrown in a quarterback’s first start, 307, while connecting on his first eight passes.
“I’ve got great confidence in Grant,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “I saw the same thing out there today that we saw every day in practice. He made some tremendous throws. The critical thing is he took care of the football. He went into that game as a young guy and took care of the ball, which was huge.”
Wells’s first pass found Broc Thompson for a 17-yard gain on the Herd’s opening drive that was capped off by a 22-yard strike to Xavier Gaines for a 7-0 lead.
“We wanted to get him a couple completions early and he did that,” Holliday said. “You couldn’t script it much better. I thought our receivers made a lot of big-time plays and that was good to see. It all starts with our defense. Our defense went out there and shut those guys out. Prior to the game at the hotel, we talked about being the best team on the field in all three phases and there’s no question we were that this afternoon.”
Marshall’s first-half possessions resulted in five touchdowns and a field goal.
Wells connected on his first eight passes and finished 16 of 23 with four touchdowns in a little over two quarters of action. Wells’s longest completion of the day went for 47 yards after Talik Keaton made a diving grab at the EKU 6 to set up first and goal.
“It was a combination of the right play call versus the right defense and me trusting my guys out there,” Wells said of his success. “I’ve said this before, I’ve been going against the best defense in Conference USA (in practice). That really helped this game slow down when I was going against somebody in a different color.”
Marshall tallied 627 yards of offense, 345 through the air, while 13 different receivers hauled in grabs. Thompson led the Herd with five catches for 67 yards. Gaines, Keaton, Garet Morrell and Jaron Woodyard all had touchdowns.
“Last year we struggled at the receiver position because we got some guys hurt early on and then Broc was a freshman,” Holliday said. “Talik was a freshman. We had some young kids. I think, number one, these guys have grown up and we’ve added a couple guys to the mix. We are a whole lot better at that position than we were a year ago.”
Marshall had 34 first downs and outgained EKU 627-166. Brenden Knox, Sheldon Evans and Lawrence Papillon each scored from the rushing attack with Knowledge McDaniel pacing the stable of backs with 93 yards on 14 carries, all in the second half.
Defensively, Marshall stymied EKU’s offensive plan by holding the Colonels to 66 total yards at the half and only three first downs. EKU’s longest play of the game came in the second quarter after quarterback Parker McKinney eluded a sack and found Jackson Beerman 28 yards downfield on a broken play.
Marshall forced four three-and-outs and Nazeeh Johnson picked off a McKinney pass into triple coverage late in the first quarter.
“Proud of how our guys played,” Holliday said. “They did a good job with their preparation. We’ve gotten a lot of practices in and I think you could see that today. We were pretty crisp and pretty clean for not playing in a while.”
Johnson finished with six tackles and the game’s only turnover and was happy to line up against an actual opponent.
“I just felt good playing someone other than your teammates,” Johnson said. “It just felt good to have another team to go against and we just let loose on them.”
Linebackers Tavante Beckett and Eli Neal led the Herd with eight tackles each while the team recorded four tackles for loss and two sacks.
“Early on you are concerned how your team would play because you haven’t played in so long,” Holliday said, “but I thought our kids came out and executed extremely well. You worry about how well we will tackle. I thought going in about if we were going to have a bunch of missed tackles. But the game was clean.”
Marshall converted on all seven red zone scoring opportunities, six going for touchdowns which aided in the Herd rewriting a line in the record book. Marshall did not punt in the contest, marking the first time since 2006 at UAB that the feat had occurred.
Although fans were in attendance, the 38,000-plus capacity stadium displayed social distancing throughout. While the actual attendance was not announced and more holes than persons could be seen, Beckett said it was great to hear from the home fans.
“It was definitely good to hear some new noise,” he said. “It’s been a quiet summer. I’m getting tired of hearing myself yell all day. It was definitely motivating know we had people watching and seeing the fans in the stands. That’s something we haven’t seen in so long.”
Marshall must now wait two weeks until its next contest with a visit from Appalachian State on Sept. 19. Although the two teams have not met since 2002, the pair share a rivalry from their days as Division I-AA foes. Appalachian State owns a 14-8 series lead over Marshall and has won the previous two meetings, the last being a 50-17 shellacking of the Herd in Huntington.