"It's a great day to be an Owl!" rookie head coach Jon Stockman shouted to his team late Friday night, and he wasn't referring to the post-game pizza.
"It's the greatest feeling in the world," declared senior quarterback Alex Maupin, whose 142 rushing yards and four touchdowns helped end the Owls' 13-game losing streak, 26-25. "I love it."
Marshall twice came back from fourth-quarter deficits, then held off the Hornets' threat in the final minute, to end a string of four straight season-opening losses in this series.
"Oh my gosh, it's so amazing," marveled senior linebackers Zarrick Williams, who recorded a team-high 10 tackles. "It feels so good."
The Owls had focused on preventing turnovers during practice last week, so naturally their first possession ended with a fumble. Fortunately for Marshall, the defense held firm and on the next series Maupin connected with junior Tyler Cott for a 41-yard swing pass, leading to Maupin's 2-yard touchdown run.
It was the first time Marshall had led a game since a 14-6 decision at Kirksville on Oct. 8, 2010.
However, the Owls' secondary would be victimized throughout the contest by Chillicothe junior quarterback Tyler Clampitt, completing 12 of 18 passes for 232 yards and three TDs -- the first one on a 74-yard bomb to junior Mason Palmer midway through the second period.
"We got beat on some coverage stuff," Stockman said. "None of that stuff we can't correct and fix."
The Hornets took advantage of good field position due to a shanked punt late in the half, picking up 40 yards on 10 plays -- 30 when a disputed personal foul call on Marshall added to junior Walker Thomas' 10-yard run. A 27-yard field goal by junior Zach Alperin sent Chillicothe into the break with a 10-7 lead.
The margin grew to 10 points during the third quarter when a 26-yard run by senior D.J. Gannan and Alperin's 25-yard reception put the Hornets into striking distance for Clampitt's 8-yard scoring toss to Alperin.
There were times, though, when the Owls' offensive line -- an eight-man rotation, thanks to the team's improved depth -- dominated. Among those stretches were the first two Marshall drives of the second half.
Maupin kept the ball for 23 yards and senior Marc Plummer added an 18-yard run to set up Maupin's 23-yard bootleg TD on the first play of the fourth quarter.
On the next series, Plummer went off left tackle for 34 yards -- with 15 clicks tacked on for a horse-collar tackle -- and Maupin ran for 28 and 11 yards, the latter putting the Owls back in front, 20-18.
"Those guys played real well up front," Stockman praised the blocking. "There are a few things we can fix there. We can get better."
Once more, Clampitt went to work, finding Palmer for 39 yards to reach the Marshall 8-yard line. A slant pass to sophomore Hayden Major and Palmer's two-point run put Chillicothe ahead, 25-20, with 8:48 left in the game.
After an exchange of punts which consumed under three minutes of the clock, Maupin came up with the Owls' biggest offensive play of the game, a 63-yard breakaway touchdown dash.
That still left 4:38 for the Hornets to come back, and they nearly did. Palmer caught a 19-yard pass to reach the Marshall 31-yard line, but three straight running plays -- the last one being stopped by Cott and senior Darion Lawrence for a loss -- left the home team with five yards to go on fourth down.
"Everything we've got, we've got to give it all for that play," Williams described the mindset of the Owls' defense down the stretch. "Play every down like its our last."
Having not had a carry of more than four yards on the ground since Gannan was injured early in the third period, the Hornets (0-1) went to the air -- and this time, Marshall's secondary came through. Pressured by Stickels, Gannan threw off-balance into the left flat, where sophomore Devin Cott was waiting to intercept the pass with 58 seconds left.
The Owls ran out the clock and celebrated the victory that eluded them completely last year.
Plummer gained 129 yards on 20 carries for Marshall, which ran for 287 yards -- the most since senior Matt Jacobs collected 341 of the team's 355 rushing yards during a 33-15 win over Kirksville to end the 2009 season.
Coaches often say that a team improves the most from the first week to the second, and the Owls are certainly hoping that's the case Friday when they head to St. Joseph to face a Lafayette squad which pounded NCMC member Mexico in the opener, 52-16.
"The kids played awfully well and bought in to what we're asking them," Stockman remarked about his team's commitment. "It rewarded them for their hard work."