EDITOR’S NOTE: Years of heartbreak, frustration and suffering ended Dec. 19, 1992 when Marshall defeated Youngstown State 31-28 in the NCAA Division I-AA national championship game. The Thundering Herd had emerged from shame and shambles to pinnacle of its division, winning the title on its home field as backup kicker Willy Merrick kicked the game-winning field goal in the closing seconds. Following is a recap of that game:
HUNTINGTON — The greatest comeback in the history of sports is complete.
Marshall University football has risen from the ashes of the 1970 plane crash to the top of NCAA Division I-AA, defeating defending champion Youngstown State 31-28 Saturday at Marshall Stadium to win the national championship in astounding fashion.
Second-team kicker Willy Merrick, a senior who never had kicked so much as an extra point in his college career, booted four of them and the game-winning field goal with 7 seconds left to lift the Thundering Herd to victory in front of a title-game-record 31,304 spectators.
Subbing for suspended starter David Merrick, Willy’s younger brother, Willy Merrick’s 22-yard field goal out of the snap of Pete Woods and hold of Andy Bowen fluttered through the uprights and into history.
“Everyone kept coming up to me and telling me it was going to come down to a field goal,” Willy Merrick said after the game. “I thought, ‘Really?’ I couldn’t believe it. It was like something I watched on TV.”
If TV script writers had written Saturday’s ending, most viewers probably wouldn’t have believed it. Still, the program known for the miraculous added another astounding moment to its storied history.
Oh, what a story this championship was. Marshall led 14-0 at halftime and 28-0 midway through the third quarter before the Penguins mounted a furious comeback to tie with 2:23 left in the contest.
The Herd took over on its own 19-yard line, needing a score. Marshall’s defense had worn down in the second half and overtime heavily favored Youngstown State and its powerful running game.
Marshall quarterback Michael Payton skillfully directed the offense, combining short passes with draws to move the Herd to the YSU 5 with 14 seconds left. Herd coach Jim Donnan was faced with a decision — go for the touchdown or let the inexperienced Merrick try a high-pressure field goal.
Donnan pondered his options. His offense featured Payton, the I-AA player of the year; All-Americans in wide receiver Troy Brown and tight end Mike Bartrum; poweful and speedy running backs Orlando Hatchett and Glenn Pedro running behind All-American offensive linemen Phil Ratliff and Chris Deaton. The coach went with Merrick.
The former soccer player trotted onto the field, lined up as a hushed crowd looked on and prepared to kick when Penguins coach Jim Tressel called time out. Once the break expired, Merrick lined up again, looked down at Bowen and up at the goal post. Again, Tressel called time out to ice Merrick, drawing a groan from the anxious crowd.
Merrick stood by himself. Donnan paced the sideline. Then YSU’s final timeout expired. Merrick again lined up, Woods snapped the ball, Bowen put it down and Merrick kicked it through. Pandemonium ensued in the stands as Merrick joyfully raced to the Herd sideline and into the arms of special teams coach Tim Billings.
Seven seconds, though, remained and the Penguins weren’t going to waste them. Marshall squib kicked to YSU, which quickly downed the ball to set up a desperation pass that was intercepted by Brown, the fabulous wide receiver turned safety. Brown took a few steps, then slid to the ground, and Marshall was champion.
“I was very nervous out there,” Merrick said. “I’m so happy to be a part of this. It’s a dream come true.”
Prior to Merrick’s heroics, it looked like Youngstown State would break Marshall’s heart again.
The Penguins (11-3-1) wiped out an 11-point deficit en route to beating the Herd 25-17 in the 1991 title game. They came within a foot — Merrick’s, namely — of coming back to win again.
“We had to shake off the thought here we go again,” Donnan said.
Marshall (12-3) was celebrating midway through the third quarter. The score was 28-0 and Youngstown State didn’t even have 100 yards total offense.
“We struggled a bit in the first half from my play-calling standpoint and on execution,” Youngstown State coach Jim Tressel said. “Then we got into sync and [quarterback Nick] Cochran did what he’s done all year.
“We didn’t put in any new plays. We perhaps called a few better ones in the second half and executed pretty darn well.”
Injuries to linebacker William King and cornerback George Thomas hindered the Herd’s defense in the closing moments.
So did the passing of Cochran, who hit 18 of 31 passes for 256 yards.
Payton was equally efficient, completing 25 of 39 passes for 270 yards and two TDs. Payton was 7 of 9 for 60 yards as he moved his team into position for the winning kick.
After a scoreless first quarter, Payton started making things happen. On third-and-8 from his own 22 early in the second quarter, he scrambled to the right before throwing to Brown on the sideline for a 38-yard gain to the Youngstown State 40.
Six plays later, on fourth-and-1 from Youngstown State’s 6, tight end Bartrum went in motion right, caught Payton’s pass at the 2 and easily scored to make it 7-0 with 10:33 left in the first half.
The Herd added to the lead before halftime thanks to a botched option pitch between Cochran and running back Terica Jones. The ball popped up after hitting Jones’ hands, dropping straight into the hands of Herd defensive back Shannon Morrison on the Youngstown State 28.
Hatchett wriggled over for a touchdown seven plays later to make it 14-0 with 3:30 left in the first half.
The Herd added a 1-yard TD run by Glenn Pedro in the third quarter and a 22-yard pass from Payton to Hatchett to make it 28-0 with 5:46 left in the period.
It didn’t take the Penguins long to get back in the game. They cut it to 28-7 with 3:41 left in the quarter on a 30-yard pass from Cochran to receiver Herb Williams, who burned Marshall late in last season’s title game and did so again.
That 57-yard drive took just 2:05, and the next two Penguin scores took even less time. Tamron Smith’s 4-yard run with 16 seconds left in the third quarter capped a 65-yard, 40-second drive. Smith added a 1-yard run with 12:04 left to cap a four-play, 49-yard drive that took just 1:19.
Payton’s favorite receiver was Brown, who caught 10 passes for 115 yards. Williams had five catches for 105 yards for Youngstown State.
Hatchett was the game’s leading rusher with 112 yards on 15 carries.