A historic night on special teams and a resilient defensive performance led the Marshall Thundering Herd to a thrilling 31-26 victory over the Miami (OH) RedHawks Saturday night in front of 22,463 fans at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, West Virginia in both teams’ season opener.
Marshall (1-0) totaled two special teams touchdowns and one defensive touchdown on a night where the offense sputtered at times to secure a season-opening win that also extended its winning streak over Miami (0-1) to four games.
The Herd’s special teams unit wasted little time making its presence felt and on the opening kickoff of the game, Keion Davis returned the kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to give Marshall a quick 7-0 lead just 12 seconds in.
Miami responded with a 15-play, 66-yard drive that was capped off with a Samuel Sloman 27-yard field goal to cut the Herd’s lead down to 7-3 with 8:34 remaining in the first quarter.
After an exchange of possessions, Marshall’s offense made a critical mistake when receiver Willie Johnson fumbled and the RedHawks’ Heath Harding returned the fumble 35 yards to the Herd 3-yard line.
And on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Miami quarterback Gus Ragland punched it in the end zone to give the RedHawks their first lead of the game at 10-7 with 13:57 to go in the second quarter.
Marshall had the answer when quarterback Chase Litton connected with receiver Tyre Brady for a 22-yard touchdown to give the Herd the lead back at 14-10 with 9:36 remaining in the second quarter.
Following another Sloman field goal for Miami that cut Marshall’s lead down to 14-13, Davis struck on special teams again when he returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to extend the Herd’s lead back up to 21-13 with 3:03 remaining until halftime.
Davis became just the 20th player in NCAA history with two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the same game and the first Marshall player in program history to do so.
Marshall’s Brandon Drayton forced a Miami fumble on the ensuing RedHawks possession that was recovered by linebacker Omari Cobb and set up the Herd’s offense at the Miami 41-yard line.
But Marshall’s offense squandered the opportunity when Litton was intercepted in the end zone by Miami’s Joshua Allen to set the halftime score at 21-13 in favor of the Herd.
After an exchange of punts to begin the third quarter, the Herd’s defense came up huge when Chris Jackson intercepted a Ragland pass and returned it 72 yards for a touchdown to extend Marshall’s lead to 28-13 with 5:30 remaining in the third quarter.
The RedHawks responded with Ragland touchdown pass to Ryan Smith to cut the Marshall lead down to 28-20 with 2:05 to go in the third quarter. A questionable targeting penalty that resulted in the ejection of Marshall’s C.J. Reavis kept the Miami drive alive after the Herd’s defense forced a stop on third down.
The Herd extended its lead back up to two possessions when Kaare Vedvik connected on a 27-yard field goal to put Marshall in front 31-20 with 11:31 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But the RedHawks were far from done and after another Ragland to Smith touchdown connection, this time from 19 yards out, Marshall’s lead was down to 31-26 with 8:01 to go in the fourth quarter after Miami’s 2-point conversion attempt failed.
After a few punts, Miami’s offense got the ball back at its own 17-yard line with 53 seconds remaining with one final chance to win the game. And the RedHawks’ offense drove all the way to the Herd’s 41-yard line with a chance to win it with one final play.
But Marshall’s defense batted Miami’s final, last-ditch heave out of the back of the end zone to secure a hard-fought 31-26 victory over the RedHawks. Marshall’s offense accounted for only 267 total yards on the night, but Litton finished 20 for 30 for 208 yards and one touchdown with one interception.
Johnson led the Herd’s receivers with seven receptions for 88 yards and Brady added three receptions for 54 yards and one touchdown as well. The Herd’s rushing attack didn’t get going consistently and only racked up 59 total rushing yards on the night, but newcomer Trey Rodriguez led the way with 54 yards on 18 carries.
Ragland had a productive game for Miami and finished 23 for 44 with 298 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Alonzo Smith led the RedHawks on the ground with 59 yards on 13 carries while James Gardner led all Miami receivers with eight receptions for 111 yards.
Drayton led the Herd on defense with 12 tackles and Chase Hancock pitched in 10 tackles, two tackles-for-loss and one sack of his own to anchor a defense that was on the field for 86 plays compared to Marshall’s offense being on the field for just 55 plays.
With the win, Marshall has now won nine out of the last 11 games against rival Miami and the RedHawks fall to 0-6 all-time at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Things get no easier for the Herd with a road game at North Carolina State looming on Sept. 9. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina. Miami returns to action Sept. 9 at home against Austin Peay.