CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This time around, Marshall’s football team made sure a trip to Charlotte ended with its quest for a Conference USA East Division title still intact.
Marshall used a career effort from Rasheen Ali and a strong third quarter effort to earn a 49-28 win over Charlotte at Jerry Richardson Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“Opportunity was knocking at our door,” Marshall head coach Charles Huff said. “We had an unbelievable opportunity to come down here, execute really well and put ourselves in position to keep our season going.”
The win sets up a winner-take-all matchup next week for Conference USA’s East Division title when the Herd meets Western Kentucky at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Marshall (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) got its offense clicking on Saturday ahead of its matchup with the Hilltoppers — the top-ranked offense in Conference USA.
Ali finished with a career-high 203 yards and three touchdowns to lead a Marshall ground attack that finished with 321 yards in the win.
“Without my O-line, I don’t think I’d have been able to do anything,” Ali said. “The performance, we really just stuck to the game plan. We knew we wanted to be run-dominant and we just executed.”
Marshall quarterback Grant Wells also was efficient, finishing 21 of 28 through the air for 267 yards and two scores. More importantly, Wells did not have a turnover and engineered an offense that amassed 588 yards.
The Herd continued its season-long strong play in the third quarter, outscoring Charlotte, 21-0, in the frame to turn a tight game into a blowout.
Wells found Xavier Gaines for a 22-yard score to open the frame and the Herd cashed in quickly after a Nazeeh Johnson interception when backup running back Sheldon Evans had his first of two scores on the evening — a 15-yarder — to make it a three-score affair.
Gaines’ touchdown reception came on a third-and-long situation. One week after converting just one of 12 attempts on third down, Marshall was 8 of 12, which went a long way toward the offensive success.
Huff said much of that was a credit to Wells, who missed a couple big shots early, but managed the game well and put the offense in good situations throughout.
“How many times did he check it down, how many times did he take off running to keep the drive alive or get three or four yards and make it third-and-3, so now when your O-line is having a good day, you can run the ball on third down,” Huff said. “How many times did he check it down to Ali and make it second-and-4 instead of second-and-9 or second-and-8 — checked it down in the flat. When your quarterback is doing that, the big shots will come.”
Johnson said his interception was the culmination of the defense knowing that, after squandering a couple opportunities early, their time would come to make a big play.
“It shows our resilience and we’re just going to keep fighting and try to create turnovers,” Johnson said. “We had two of them today, so that’s good.”
Evans’ first scoring run was set up by a 59-yard run from Ali, who later added a 4-yard scoring run to end his three-touchdown day and cap a streak of 28 consecutive points for Marshall.
Early on, it appeared that the game would be a seesaw affair as the teams engaged in long scoring drives to start things.
Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds led the 49ers on a 16-play, 75-yard opening drive that ended with his touchdown toss to Keith Pearson to give the 49ers a 7-0 lead early.
After Marshall took the lead on a pair of Ali touchdown runs of 25 and five yards early in the second, Reynolds found Cam Dollar for a 21-yard score late in the first half that knotted the game at 14.
The game turned late in the first half, though, as Charlotte (5-6, 3-4 C-USA) blew a defensive coverage and Wells found Corey Gammage for a 64-yard score that gave Marshall a 21-14 halftime lead.
From that point, Marshall’s defensive pressure made life difficult for Reynolds, who consistently scrambled under duress.
Reynolds finished the game 19 of 34 for 176 yards and three touchdowns — two of which went to Dollar.