HUNTINGTON — When Marshall scored its sixth non-offensive touchdown of the season Saturday night, it proved to be the winning score in the 30-23 win over Western Kentucky.
The man who scored on a 45-yard interception return was someone you wouldn’t have guessed before the season started, redshirt freshman safety Nazeeh Johnson. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound resident of Martinsburg is still a walk-on, though that status doesn’t figure to last forever.
Johnson simply jumped an “out” route, a routine-looking pass by WKU’s Mike White. Bear in mind that White is a 10,000-yard passer who still has a low interception rate — seven in 418 attempts.
With Marshall ahead 20-10, White had started a scoring drive, passing for a first down and facing a second-and-5 on the WKU 41-yard line. Instead of moving across midfield, Marshall led 27-10 with 1:37 left in the third quarter.
As they say in the running back room, Johnson was emphasizing ball security on his way to the end zone. In plain English, he was protecting that ball as much as he could.
“I broke my hand, so I’ve only got four [healthy] fingers on that hand,” he said.
After being outscored 33-0 in points off turnovers the last two games, Marshall outscored WKU 10-0.
The Herd’s lone turnover came on a Chase Litton interception in the end zone, and proved harmless. That gave WKU the ball on the 20, and Johnson’s interception came four plays later.
And right after Johnson’s touchdown, the Herd forced the second turnover on special teams, when returner Jachour Pearson coughed up the ball. Chase Hancock recovered, but it was Jaquan Yulee who forced the fumble.
While Yulee continues to toil as a second-string linebacker, he is asserting himself on special teams.
“He’s always causing fumbles, knocking people out,” Hancock said of Yulee. “Double teams are coming at him, he’s holding his own in there, and it makes me excited about his future.”
Pearson, by the way, was taking returns in place of the injured Kylen Towner, who returned the opening kickoff for a TD in WKU’s 60-6 win over the Herd last year.
It was a very good day for special teams, with Kaare Vedvik’s three field goals, good kickoff coverage and Keion Davis averaging 30 yards on four runbacks. His last runback was perhaps the most critical — after WKU scored to cut the Herd’s lead to 30-23 with 3:02 left.
The Herd prepared for an onside kick, but the Hilltoppers opted to kick it deep and try to induce a three-and-out. Davis took the kick at the MU 4, curiously tiptoed a few steps before shooting through a crease and gaining 39 yards.
That set the stage for the Herd to run out the clock.
“I didn’t know what the hell he was doing on that last one,” Holliday joked. “It turned out OK. We had that ‘hands team’ in there and they’re supposed to get hats on the right guy; I thought Keion was going to take a knee. I was about ready to choke him.
“I look up and the ball was up at the 50. It was one of those deals where, ‘What they hell are you … oh yeah, that’s great!”
As for Vedvik, he had one of the rarest triples for a kicking specialist: He hit three field goals, topped 40 yards per punt (43.3) and incurred a personal foul penalty for a late hit.
MU and WKU has played some chippy games since the Hilltoppers joined Conference USA in 2014, even fighting before their first league game that year. Ryan Yurachek got caught up in the emotions late in the game, as the Herd was killing the clock.
He picked up the team’s second of three first downs on the game-ending drive. He caught a Chase Litton passed and advanced down the right sidelines, going 30 yards to the WKU 9.
But he was flagged for a throat-slashing gesture, which pushed the ball back to the 24. The Herd did get a fresh set of downs, but might have scored a late TD otherwise.
“They got me with the throat-slash,” Yurachek said. “I wasn’t doing the throat-slash, I was just kind of doing the ‘game over’ move. Kind of looked throat-slash-esque. Emotional game, that’s for sure.”
Litton said, “As soon as I saw it, I was like, ‘man,’ and put my head down. But we got the first down; look at the glass half full. ‘Chek, obviously, won’t get a ‘plus’ for that play, but great re-enactment.”
Of wrestling’s “Undertaker,” apparently.
“We were watching WWE last night, and he got excited,” Litton said.