EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the Herald-Dispatch’s story from Marshall’s victory over Western Michigan in the 1999 Mid-America Conference championship game:
HUNTINGTON — Unbelievable!
That was the most-used word to describe 11th-ranked Marshall on Friday night in its wild 34-30 victory over Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference championship game in front of 28,069 emotionally exhausted spectators at Marshall Stadium.
“Unbelievable,” Thundering Herd fans shouted when quarterback Chad Pennington hit the unlikely target of backup tight end Eric Pinkerton, a first baseman on the baseball team, with a 1-yard touchdown pass with four seconds to play to give Marshall an incredibly dramatic win over the Broncos.
“Unbelievable,” Herd fans muttered when uninspired, confused and stunned Marshall trailed 23-0 halfway through the third quarter.
“Unbelievable,” fans shouted after Doug Chapman’s 2-yard touchdown run with 12:36 left in the game gave the Thundering Herd a 27-23 lead, its first of the night.
When Western Michigan (7-5) regained the lead at 30-27 on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 7:20 to play, “unbelievable” once again was the word of choice.
Marshall (12-0) next will play No. 25 Brigham Young (8-3) in the Motor City Bowl on Dec. 27 at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. The Herd, after winning its third straight MAC championship, now has a chance to crack the top 10 in The Associated Press and USA TODAY/ESPN polls. New polls will be released Sunday.
“Tonight we proved that we’re a great football team,” Herd coach Bobby Pruett said. “To be down 23-0 and come back and score 34 points in the second half, we deserve to be where we’re ranked. We deserve to be a top-10 football team.”
The victory was secured when John Grace intercepted a pass on the game’s final play to spark an on-field celebration that resulted in fans tearing down the south goal post. It was the final drive, though, that will be talked about for years.
Trailing 30-27, Marshall took over at its own 25-yard line with 3:08 left. On the first play, Pennington was sacked by Mario Evans for a 7-yard loss. Pennington then hit Nate Poole for a 12-yard gain, but a shovel pass to Chapman — that had worked three times for 49 yards earlier — was stuffed for no gain, bringing up fourth-and-6 at the 29. If Marshall failed to pick up a first down, Western Michigan needed to simply run out the final 1:10 to win the game.
Pennington wouldn’t let it happen. He rifled a 9-yard pass to James Williams for a first down at the 39. One play later, Pennington raced 33 yards, possibly faster than he’s ever run in his life, down the Western Michigan sideline for a first down. A 15-yard personal-foul penalty on the Broncos moved the ball to the 14 with 51 seconds left.
Chapman gained 3 yards, then 5 yards, before Pennington hit Williams for a 5-yard gain to the 1. Pennington then was stopped for no gain on a quarterback sneak. He called timeout with seven seconds left and the Herd debated its options: kick a field goal and go to overtime, or try one more play and hope that time didn’t expire. Pruett opted for another play, a quick pass to Pinkerton, a converted linebacker and senior from Sissonville.
The play worked. Pinkerton cradled the ball 3 yards deep in the end zone and put himself alongside Terry Gardner and Willy Merrick in Marshall football lore.
“It was a called play, a basic pass play, with two or three guys going out,” Pinkerton said. “I figured I’d be the one to be open. The whole world thought we were going to run.”
Western Michigan coach Gary Darnell was one of the people who guessed run, figuring Marshall would try to take advantage of a 60-pound-per-man size advantage.
“We knew they’d do one or the other [pass or run up the middle],” said Darnell, his eyes red after talking with his team. “Knowing Bob the way I do, I thought he’d take one more shot [at running]. It didn’t happen. It went the other way.”
Pennington’s pass to Pinkerton was perfect, a line shot into the gut.
“If that’s not a Heisman candidate, I don’t know what is,” Pruett said of Pennington, who will fly to New York next week for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
“That’s what Heisman candidates do. We were behind at Clemson in our first game and he brought us back. We were behind tonight in our last game and he brought us back.”
Pruett rubbed Pennington’s head and patted the quarterback’s shoulder as he spoke. Pennington couldn’t restrain a wide, but tired, smile.
The game turned dramatically in the third quarter. Marshall answered, just as Darnell said he feared the Herd would, scoring 27 points in just 15 plays. And as Pruett predicted, the Herd adjusted to changes Western Michigan made since Marshall’s regular-season 31-17 victory over the Broncos on Nov 13.
“Believe me, there was never any doubt in any of our minds that we couldn’t come back and win this game,” Pennington said. “Like great championship teams do, we find a way to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s pretty or ugly, a win’s a win.”
Pruett said his halftime talk wasn’t a fiery one.
“I told our kids at halftime, ‘You’re not carrying yourself like you think you can win,’” Pruett said. “I told them they had to believe they could win. We can score 20 points in three or four minutes.”
Western Michigan opened the third quarter with a 14-play drive that took 6:26 and ended with Brad Selent’s 36-yard field goal to give the Broncos a 23-0 lead.
Western Michigan’s game plan and execution — after four early penalties — was nearly flawless. Marshall, meanwhile, stumbled at critical opportunities and never was in sync until its first drive of the third quarter, a five-play, 73-yard drive that ended with a 38-yard pass from Pennington to Poole.
Marshall’s defense then stuffed the Broncos, forcing a punt. The Herd responded with another scoring drive that ended with Chapman’s 24-yard touchdown run with 3:37 left in the third quarter.
The Herd defense stopped Western Michigan again, as Maurice Hines returned an interception 35 yards to the Broncos’ 17. One play later, Pennington hit Williams with a touchdown pass to make it 23-20.
Momentum had swung.
“Can you believe it,” Marshall fan Ricky Collins of Huntington screamed after the game. “Can you believe it. That was unbelievable.”