HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Forget the hill, Western Kentucky is once again atop the East Division mountain.
The Hilltoppers scored points on nine of their first 10 possessions and secured a second consecutive appearance in the Conference USA championship game Saturday night following a 60-6 thumping of host Marshall in the regular season finale for both programs at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Cabell County.
Western Kentucky (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) scored touchdowns on their first five possessions while storming out to a 48-0 lead less than five minutes into the second half.
Then, and only then, did the Thundering Herd (3-9, 2-6) finally put together enough offense to break into the scoring column.
MU — which produced only 230 yards of total offense — covered 82 yards over an impressive stretch of 16 plays to finally hit paydirt as Ryan Yurachek hauled in a four-yard pass from Garet Morrell with 1:57 left in the third quarter for a 48-6 contest.
The Hilltoppers, however, blocked the ensuing extra-point kick and Joe Brown returned the loose ball all the way to the house — giving the guests a commanding 50-6 advantage.
WKU — which racked up 462 yards of total offense — went on to add a 22-yard field goal by Skyler Simcox with 14:52 left and capped the scoring with a Quinton Baker four-yard run with 7:23 left in regulation.
The Hilltoppers — who won the Conference USA championship last year after defeating Southern Miss 45-28 — will be making a repeat appearance in the title game as they will host West Division champion Louisiana Tech at noon Saturday.
Western Kentucky, with the win, actually clinched a share of the 2016 East Division crown along with Old Dominion. The Hilltoppers defeated the Monarchs by a 59-24 margin to win the tiebreaker for the 2016 C-USA championship berth.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our team. It was very important for us to come ready to play and we definitely did that,” WKU coach Jeff Brohm said after the victory. “Our guys came ready and practiced well. We started out with a bang. We understood the importance of the game. We had to win to advance and our guys definitely did that.”
Marshall — which won the 2014 Conference USA crown, the same season that WKU joined Conference USA — saw a disappointing 2016 campaign come to a grueling end, not to mention the program’s streak of three consecutive years with double-digit wins and bowl victories.
A 54-point setback wasn’t the most fitting end for 13 seniors that enjoyed 36 wins over the last four years. This season, however, also resulted in over half of the program’s 17 losses during that same span.
Seventh-year MU coach Doc Holliday didn’t have much to offer in terms of what went wrong this year, but he was quick to pay respect to Western Kentucky and assured that the 2016 campaign will not be something that is tolerated.
“Not a whole lot to be said. They’re a good football team, we’re not a good football team right now. We did not meet the expectations and standards that are to be met around here this year,” Holliday said. “We’ll go back to work tomorrow and make sure this never happens again.”
Any hopes of a Marshall upset quickly disappeared after Kylen Towner returned the opening kickoff 93 yards to give WKU a 7-0 edge 14 seconds into the contest.
Taywan Taylor made it a 14-0 game with a 21-yard touchdown catch from Mike White at the 10:11 mark, then Anthony Wales added a 19-yard run and hauled in a 16-yard pass from White for consecutive scores that gave Western Kentucky a 28-0 advantage after one quarter of play.
Nicholas Norris caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from White eight seconds into the second canto, giving the Hilltoppers a 35-0 advantage.
Simcox added successful field goals from 41 and 47 yards out, allowing WKU to take a comfortable 41-0 cushion into the break.
Despite having possession for 19:57 of the first 30 minutes of play, the Herd had only 14 rushing yards on 16 carries and 93 yards of total offense. The Hilltoppers, conversely, owned an 18-9 edge in first downs and had 286 yards of total offense, including 100 rushing yards on 13 totes.
Wales added his second rushing score and third touchdown overall with a one-yard scamper at the 10:46 mark of the third quarter, giving Western Kentucky a sizable 48-0 lead.
The Hilltoppers finished the night plus-2 in turnover differential and scored seven points off of takeaways. The guests also claimed a 27-18 advantage in first downs and rushed 30 times for 229 yards, compared to 39 attempts for 87 rushing yards by Marshall.
The Herd was also penalized 11 times for 90 yards, while WKU was flagged six times for 80 yards.
Anthony Anderson led the MU ground attack with 40 yards on 18 carries, followed by Tony Pittman with 37 yards on 10 tries.
Morrell completed 19-of-35 pass attempts for 143 yards, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions. Morrell also ran the ball nine times for 33 yards.
Deon-Tay McManus led the Herd wideouts with seven grabs for 45 yards. Michael Clark also hauled in three passes for 42 yards and Josh Knight caught three balls for 16 yards.
Rodney Allen led the Marshall defense with 11 tackles, while Corey Neely and Kendall Gant respectively added nine and seven tackles. The hosts did not record a sack in the season-ending setback.
Wales led the WKU rushing attack with 113 yards on 13 carries, followed by Quinton Baker with 104 yards on 10 totes.
White completed 16-of-27 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns. Taylor hauled in a team-high five catches for 52 yards, while Norris added 79 yards on three grabs.
Keith Brown led the Hilltoppers with 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and recorded a sack. T.J. McCollum also chipped in 10 tackles and Joel Iyiegbuniwe added nine stops.
Joe Brown and Tacorian Darden also had an interception apiece for the victors.
It was the final football game for seniors Cody Carter, Corey Neely, Emanuel Byrd, Terry Richardson, Josh Knight, Justin Hunt, Shawn Petty, Devonte’a Tyler, Michael Selby, Gary Thompson, Ryan Riedel, Joe Massaquoi and Clint Van Horn in the Green and White.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.