EDITOR’S NOTE: Marshall’s first game after moving up from NCAA Division I-AA to I-A probably couldn’t have been more hyped. The Thundering Herd visited Mountaineer Field and threw a scare into favored West Virginia on Aug. 30, 1997. The Mountaineers won 42-31, but rallied late to do it as Marshall proved it belonged in its new division. Here is the game story from that day:
MORGANTOWN — Unfortunately for Marshall, scoreboards don’t display a category for respect won.
The Thundering Herd forced heavily favored West Virginia to rally in the fourth quarter to post a 42-31 victory Saturday before 65,492 at Mountaineer Field. But, in the eyes of Marshall players and West Virginia fans, the loss showed that MU — which led 31-28 in the final period — is ready for the move to Division I-A.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Herd coach Bobby Pruett said, minutes after suffering his first loss in two seasons as a head coach. “We came into this game against the No. 1 defense in the country and did pretty well. We’re disappointed we lost. We didn’t come here to play it close. We came here to win. But, we showed we belong.”
West Virginia’s defense, top-ranked in the nation last season, was no match for Marshall’s offense during the Herd’s 21-point third quarter. Chad Pennington hit Randy Moss with touchdown passes of 15 and 25 yards and backup tailback Llow Turner scored on a 53-yard run as Marshall turned a 28-3 deficit into a 31-28 lead.
Moss’ second TD reception came after West Virginia thought it had Marshall stopped. The Herd was punting from the West Virginia 39 when Bob Baum and Gary Stills roughed Herd punter Chris Hanson, resulting in a 15-yard penalty and a Marshall first down. On the next play, Moss circled down the left sideline behind cornerback Nate Terry and Pennington hit him for the TD.
The lead stood for more than 41/2 minutes before West Virginia quarterback Marc Bulger found tight end Chad Wable with a 15-yard touchdown pass. Wable stretched the final yard, reaching into the corner of the end zone to make it 35-31.
Mountaineer tailback Amos Zereoue scored on a 1-yard plunge with 7:56 left to set the final score.
“One thing’s for sure, I’m glad this game’s over,” West Virginia coach Don Nehlen said. “Marshall is a good team. They have a good scheme, excellent receivers with great skill, and not just Moss.”
Zereoue, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound sophomore, was nearly all of West Virginia’s offense. The speedy, nimble tailback carried 27 times for 174 yards and three touchdowns. The rest of the Mountaineer offense accounted for just 157 yards.
Both of the Mountaineers’ fourth-quarter touchdowns were set up by Terry interceptions on slightly underthrown passes deep in Marshall territory. The first interception came at the MU 26 with 12:57 left. The second came at the Marshall 35 with 10:38 to play.
“Their guys made good plays on those interceptions,” Pennington said. “Give them a lot of credit for that.”
Both interceptions came with Marshall needing 10 yards for a first down and with the Herd at its own 20. The first came on third down, the second on first down. Pennington said the calls were good, but the execution was poor.
For a while, it appeared that the fourth quarter would be reserved for the third-teamers. West Virginia had a 7-0 lead before its offense touched the ball. Gary Thompkins blocked a Hanson punt and returned it 7 yards for a touchdown to give the Mountaineers a 7-0 lead with 12:30 left in the first quarter.
West Virginia then scored on its first two offensive possessions. Zereoue capped a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown run with 6:04 left in the first quarter. Then, after Marshall’s Billy Malashevich kicked a 24-yard field goal, Zereoue broke loose on a 51-yard touchdown run to make it 21-3 with 2 seconds left in the first quarter.
Zereoue’s second TD was set up by Damon Cogdell’s interception of a ball tipped by fellow linebacker Jason Williams at the Mountaineers 49.
“That first half was our welcome to I-A football,” MU wide receiver LaVorn Colclough said of the Herd’s first I-A game since spending 20 years at the I-AA level. “We were shook up after getting that punt blocked. After we got into the flow of the game, we showed we could play at this level.”
Curtis Keaton scored on an 11-yard run at 10:51 of the second quarter to make it 28-3. Then, it appeared that the 16-point betting line wouldn’t be nearly enough.
Marshall came back to score a key touchdown with 3:34 left in the second quarter when Pennington hit Colclough with a perfectly thrown 24-yard pass to make it 28-10 at halftime.
“I didn’t even see the ball until the last second,” Colclough said. “The defender had his arm up.”
Nehlen began subbing late in the second quarter, but quickly reversed that practice when Marshall rallied.
“I told them at halftime that we could win,” Pruett said. “Our effort showed that we had a chance to win.”
With West Virginia geared to slow Moss, Pennington frequently looked to Colclough, who caught six passes for 79 yards. Moss caught seven balls for 85 yards, returned three kickoffs for 80 yards and ran back four punts for 60 yards.
By the time the Herd mounted a third-quarter rally, Marshall’s defense had solidified against the big, strong Mountaineer offensive front. The Herd, inspired by fans’ chants of “defense, defense,” forced West Virginia to punt on six consecutive possessions before Jay Taylor missed a 47-yard field goal with 1:37 left in the third quarter, fueling MU’s hope for an upset.
It wasn’t to be. The two fourth-quarter interceptions were costly, especially to a defense that had been worn down by West Virginia’s superior size and depth.
“The fourth quarter, we got worn down a little bit,” Pruett said. “I think that was evident.”
Turner replaced starter Doug Chapman, who left the game with leg cramps, and ran for a career-high 106 yards on eight carries.
Pennington completed 19 of 48 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns, with four interceptions in his return to a starting role after being redshirted last year. Pennington, a sophomore who started as a true freshman, was sacked five times and hit repeatedly.
Pruett said Marshall passed its first test as a I-A team.
“We’ve made progress,” Pruett said. “That’s evident by this game. WVU has a good, class team.
“We’ve been Division I for three weeks. I’m proud of our guys.”
No doubt, so are Marshall fans everywhere.