HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Western Kentucky’s final regular-season game went much like its regular season as a whole.

A rough start, and a strong finish.

The Hilltoppers beat Marshall in the regular-season finale 53-21 Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium by outscoring the Herd 47-7 in the second half to win Conference USA’s East Division and earn a berth in the league championship game Friday in San Antonio.

“The team’s just got a lot of fight, grit and they believe in each other,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said. “You’re on the road at Marshall. We knew it was going to be a tough game and Marshall had momentum in the first half. We went in there in the locker room when it was halftime and regrouped and told each other we were going to go out there and do it and we put the pedal to the metal.”

WKU (8-4 overall, 7-1 C-USA) picked up its seventh straight win to close the regular season after a 1-4 start that included losses to Army, Indiana, Michigan State and the University of Texas at San Antonio. But with the winner-take-all victory over Marshall (7-5, 5-3) for the East, the Hilltoppers will get another shot at the Roadrunners in Friday’s league championship game.

Much like the season, Saturday’s matchup in Huntington got off to a rough start – the Hilltoppers were down 14-0 early in the second quarter and were struggling to move the ball – but a big play by their senior leader on defense turned the tides.

DeAngelo Malone hit Marshall quarterback Grant Wells and forced a fumble that was recovered by Brodric Martin. The Hilltoppers turned it into a 41-yard field goal from Brayden Narveson and continued on a stretch of 36 unanswered points. Wells did not return to the game.

WKU went into halftime down 14-6 before blowing the Herd out 23-0 in the third quarter.

“Once we were able to stop the run on first and second down, we were able to pin our ears back and get after the quarterback,” said WKU linebacker Jaden Hunter, who had a team-high nine tackles and two of the team’s four sacks. “That’s the one thing coach emphasized – he wanted us to stop the run on first and second and go get the quarterback on third.”

The Hilltoppers recorded touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half – a 47-yard touchdown pass from Bailey Zappe to Daewood Davis, a 14-yard pass from Zappe to Malachi Corley and a 50-yard pass from Zappe to Davis – to make it 26-14. WKU added a 53-yard field goal to make it 29-14 at the end of the third.

“I feel like it gave us a major spark,” Davis said. “We’re a big-play offense. You can check the stats, you can check the records, you feel me? We’ve got one of the best quarterbacks in college football – I call him The General – so once we get going, we get going, and I don’t think there’s no defense out there that can stop us really, to be honest.”

WKU had 293 yards in the third quarter after recording just 158 in the first half and 33 in the first quarter.

“Just kind of getting back to how we play ball,” Zappe said. “The first half, I think we were trying to do a little too much – me, personally. Coming out of halftime, we were really one big play away from starting to get our offense going and we were able to do that – me and (Davis) – and once we get going, we’re hard to stop.”

The Hilltoppers added an 8-yard touchdown pass from Zappe to Dalvin Smith to cap off the string of scoring with 14:18 remaining, giving WKU a 22-point lead.

Marshall ended the streak with a 41-yard pass from Luke Zban to Shadeed Ahmed with 12:23 remaining, but the Herd tried an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff and Craig Burt Jr. returned it 43 yards for a touchdown to make it a 43-21 WKU lead.

Narveson added a 39-yard field goal with 1:12 to play and Davion Williams had a 45-yard pick-six in the final minute to close out the 53-21 victory.

Zappe finished with 328 yards and four touchdowns on 25-of-48 passing. Davis had 105 yards and two touchdowns on three receptions, Mitchell Tinsley had 84 yards on nine catches and Corley had 76 yards and a score on four receptions. The Hilltoppers had 157 yards rushing – their most in a single game this season – led by 69 yards on 14 carries from Noah Whittington.

WKU held Marshall to 325 yards in the game. Wells finished with 76 yards and a touchdown on 10-of-14 passing before leaving the game and Zban had 123 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 16-of-25 passing. Rasheen Ali had 99 yards rushing on 24 attempts.

WKU’s offense got off to a slow start and managed just 33 yards in the opening quarter. The Herd held Zappe – who entered the week leading the nation with 421.8 yards passing per game – to just 17 yards on 4-for-10 passing through the first 15 minutes as Marshall took a 7-0 lead into the second quarter with a 1-yard touchdown run from Wells to cap off a 15-play, 79-yard drive.

The Herd added to their lead in the first minute of the second when Wells found Devin Miller for a 3-yard score on fourth-and-goal to make it 14-0. To that point, Wells had completed all 10 passes he attempted for 76 yards.

WKU’s defense started making plays that the Hilltoppers turned into points later in the second – although they couldn’t find the end zone – starting with a strip sack of Wells from Malone. Martin recovered and WKU got on the board with a 41-yard field from Narveson to make it 14-6 at the 8:05 mark in the period.

Wells was replaced by Zban, and the Hilltoppers came up with a stop on a keeper from Zban on fourth-and-short from the WKU 45-yard line. After forcing the turnover on downs, WKU advanced to the Marshall 28 before settling for a 46-yard field goal from Narveson to make it 14-6 with 2:48 to play in the half.

WKU again came up with a stop with the help of its first-half timeouts, and got the ball back, but a 47-yard attempt from Narveson was a line drive off the crossbar and Marshall took an eight-point lead into the break. Despite not being able to cap off any drives with scores, the Hilltoppers were up to 158 yards of offense – 118 passing and 40 rushing – at halftime before exploding for a 47-7 advantage in second-half points.

“I thought they did a really good job in their secondary covering us. They played some man coverage and they were able to stop us,” Helton said. “Our offensive staff did a great job of making adjustments where we could get off some of the press man coverage where we could create motions and stacks and different things and that really played in our favor.

“That’s why you have halftimes. You go out there and make adjustments for those exact reasons. It was a great job by our staff during halftime.”

With the win, WKU advances to face UTSA in the C-USA championship game next week in San Antonio. The Roadrunners claimed the West Division crown with a last-minute win over UAB last weekend before falling to North Texas 45-23 Saturday in Denton, Texas, for their first loss of the season. UTSA beat WKU 52-46 in the Hilltoppers’ C-USA opener at Houchens-Smith Stadium on Oct. 9.

Kickoff for Friday’s C-USA championship game is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Alamodome and the game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.