Saturday started as a big opportunity for FIU.
It ended, however, with a bigger disappointment.
With bowl eligibility on the line, FIU was dominated in each of the game’s facets as Marshall earned a 52-0 victory over the Panthers in front of a Senior Day crowd of 26,572 fans at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
FIU must now defeat Western Kentucky, which is undefeated in Conference USA, in next week’s final regular-season game to become bowl eligible.
“It’s obviously difficult,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “They are a very, very good football team. We knew coming in that we would have to play our best game to have a shot.”
But the Panthers did not have their best game. The rushing attack was limited to 2 yards in the first half, and quarterback Alex McGough finished 11 of 25 for 98 yards and an interception as FIU (5-6, 3-4) amassed just 209 yards of total offense on the day.
In addition to Marshall’s 18 seniors celebrating their last home game, Saturday’s contest was played on the 45th anniversary of the 1970 Marshall plane crash, which is still the largest sports-related tragedy in history.
On Nov. 14, 1970, Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed into a hillside while returning the Marshall football team from a 17-14 loss to East Carolina in Greenville, North Carolina. Among those killed were all 37 members who traveled with the football team, the coaching staff and several school administrators and boosters.
Saturday represented only the sixth time in the 45 years since the crash that Marshall (9-2, 6-1) has played on the anniversary, and the team took the emotion to the field.
Marshall’s defense set the tone early, forcing a pair of three-and-out possessions and scoring touchdowns off both to grab a two-score lead midway through the first quarter.
After a shanked punt that traveled 10 yards by FIU’s Chris Ayers, Marshall running back Remi Watson gave the Herd a 7-0 lead at the 11:14 mark of the first quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run.
Chase Litton hit Justin Hunt on a 7-yard scoring pass to increase the lead to 14-0. Both possessions started on FIU’s side of the 50-yard line, and matters were made worse when Deandre Reaves gave Marshall a 21-0 lead when he returned an Ayers punt 69 yards for a score with 1:21 left in the first quarter.
“It just couldn’t have started out any worse for us,” Turner said.
“We don’t move the ball and then we shank a punt and give them great field position, and we just couldn’t get out of the hole.”
It was all that Marshall would need on this day with the Herd rolling and FIU reeling.
“This is probably the most dominant performance that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said.
FIU played the first half without star defensive end Michael Wakefield and the absence was evident as Marshall’s rushing attack, which had struggled in the previous two weeks, gained nearly 200 yards in the half. The Herd finished with 289 yards on 39 carries.
In addition to the physical absence of Wakefield, who is among Conference USA’s leaders in tackles for loss and sacks, Turner said the loss of his leadership was evident as well.
“It was huge - not just because of his play on the field,” Turner said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, but he’s also one of the leaders, so not having him in there was very tough.”
Marshall quarterback Chase Litton, a Tampa, Fla., native, continued the strong start to his true freshman season, moving to 8-1 as a starter for the Herd.
Litton finished 16-of-23 for 169 yards and three touchdowns for Marshall. In addition to Hunt, Litton hit tight end Ryan Yurachek for a 3-yard touchdown pass before connecting with Reaves on a 10-yard score.