Trampled Herd | Hilltoppers thrash Marshall, claim East Division title

WKU’s running back Anthony Wales (20) celebrates after trotting into the end zone during the Hilltoppers’ 49-28 win over Marshall on Friday at L.T. Smith Stadium. The Hilltoppers clinched the C-USA East Division championship with the win and will now host the C-USA Football Championship Game on Sat. Dec. 5.

Billy Rutledge

The Hilltoppers punched their ticket to the Conference USA Championship Game after beating 2014 C-USA East Division Champion Marshall Saturday. With a perfect 8-0 record in league play, the Hilltoppers claimed the East Division title and earned the right to host Southern Mississippi (9-3, 7-1) in the championship contest this Saturday at Smith Stadium.

In a rematch of a game last season that ended with a Hilltopper win in overtime, WKU bested the Herd 49-28 and had control the entire contest.

The win also gave the Hilltoppers their 10th win of the season, marking only the seventh time in WKU football’s 96-year history that this has happened and the first time since 2002.

“This is a huge win for our team, something that we’ve worked long and hard for all year long,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “We are extremely happy. We are going to enjoy this one.”

Brohm remembered how much the win meant for the program last season when WKU beat then-No. 19 Marshall in Huntington, West Virginia, and knew his team was capable of pulling out a win again.

“[Marshall] is a good football team,” Brohm said. “We wanted to try and unseat them. We wanted to change the guard and get ourselves in the championship game.”

In the win, sixth-year quarterback Brandon Doughty threw for 370 yards and five touchdowns, and redshirt junior Anthony Wales rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown. It was the sixth straight game in which Wales has tallied over 100 yards against C-USA opponents.

Redshirt senior tight end Tyler Higbee racked up six catches, 92 yards and two touchdowns in his first game back since he sustained a knee injury against North Texas in mid-October.

Defensively, WKU had one of its stronger outings of the season, holding one of the best offenses in C-USA to just 273 total yards.

The Hilltopper defense, which forced four turnovers, three sacks and seven tackles for a loss, was led by redshirt senior linebacker Nick Holt. Holt recorded four tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

“[Marshall] had the title until we took it from them today,” Doughty said. “It was a huge victory for us — for our team to go out there and do it as a team effort. Our defense played better than 28 points. They shut them down in the first half, and that helped us a lot.”

On just the third play of the game, Doughty found junior receiver Nicholas Norris on a swing pass that went 45 yards for a touchdown.

On Marshall’s opening drive, the Hilltopper defense forced a three-and-out, but redshirt sophomore Kylen Towner fumbled the punt return and brought the WKU defense back to the field.

The Herd took over in WKU’s territory, but the Hilltoppers forced another three-and-out, and Marshall’s redshirt sophomore kicker Nick Smith missed a 41-yard field goal wide left.

WKU took over with its 7-0 lead intact but continued to hurt itself when it coughed up a second fumble, a backwards pass by Doughty, that was recovered by the Herd just as the Hilltoppers were about to enter the red zone.

The first quarter ended with WKU leading 7-0, and on the first play of the second quarter, the Hilltoppers extended their lead.

Wales scored on a 15-yard run, pushing WKU’s lead to 14-0, while the defense continued to keep the Herd offense at bay.

Doughty found the end zone for the second time of the day through a 6-yard touchdown strike to Higbee to cap off a 10-play, 82-yard drive to put the Hilltoppers up 21-0 midway through the second quarter.

The Herd responded immediately. Redshirt senior Deandre Reaves returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for their first score of the game.

Just before halftime, a 10-yard touchdown strike from Doughty to junior receiver Taywan Taylor brought the score to 35-14. The score marked Doughty’s fourth touchdown of the first half.

Coming out of halftime, the Hilltoppers forced three turnovers in the first three drives: one fumble recovery by senior defensive lineman Ge’Monee Brown forced by Holt, a second interception by Holt and a strip sack by sophomore Derik Overstreet.

The takeaways set up two field goals from 38 and 29 yards by senior kicker Garrett Schwettman to extend the lead to 41-14.

After a pair of punts, Marshall found some success in the form of a 32-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Chase Litton to junior receiver Justin Hunt.

The Hilltoppers immediately responded with a 23-yard touchdown strike, Doughty’s fifth of the day, from Doughty to senior receiver Antwane Grant. After a completed two-point conversion attempt, the Hilltoppers held a 49-21 lead just after the start of the fourth quarter.

The game ended 49-28 and marked the worst conference loss for Marshall since a 54-17 loss at Central Florida in 2012.

“This is a great place, and I think we have a chance to build a great program,” Brohm said. “We have guys that play well for us. We do the best we can to develop them, but they have become great playmakers. It’s not all coaching; it’s guys that work hard, believe in each other and the system … Whether we win or lose, we are going to come back next week and get better.”

The title game on Saturday at 11 will be played at Smith Stadium and be aired on ESPN2.