PONTIAC, Mich. — Perfect.
Marshall defeated traditional national power Brigham Young 21-3 Monday in the 1999 Motor City Bowl in front of 44,863 fans at the Silverdome to complete a perfect 13-0 season and secure a place in NCAA history among the Ohio States, Nebraskas and Notre Dames as one of the few squads to finish a year unbeaten.
The Thundering Herd defensively dominated a 25th-ranked BYU team that had not been held without a touchdown in a bowl game since 1974. The last time the Cougars scored fewer points in any game was in 1975. BYU (8-4) finished with minus-16 yards rushing and just 204 yards overall, compared to Marshall’s 354 yards.
“People tried to take things away from our football program all year long,” Marshall coach Bobby Pruett said, alluding to those who questioned the Herd’s strength of schedule. “But we proved ourselves against a good football team.”
The victory might be enough to push No. 11 Marshall into the final Associated Press and USA TODAY/ESPN top 10, which would satisfy Pruett’s final goal.
“We’re a top 10 football team. I know that,” Pruett said. “We’re No. 1 in my heart.”
The Herd convinced BYU.
“I’ll vote them in the top 10 where they belong,” Cougars coach LaVell Edwards said. “We’ll see where it all sorts out.”
Marshall led 7-3 but didn’t seize control until tailback Doug Chapman broke an 87-yard touchdown run to make it 14-3 with 51 seconds left in the third quarter. The run was Chapman’s longest ever, Marshall’s longest of the season and a Motor City Bowl record. Not bad for a play that wasn’t even originally called.
“Chad [Pennington] changed the play at the line of scrimmage,” Chapman said, referring to Marshall’s quarterback, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 207 yards and one touchdown, with one interception, in his final college game.
BYU was forced to the air to try to catch up. Freshman Bret Engemann’s second pass after Chapman’s scoring run was intercepted by safety Rogers Beckett and returned 17 yards to the BYU 1-yard line. One play later, Chapman leaped over the middle of the line for his third touchdown of the game on his final carry as a collegian.
During BYU’s next series, the Cougars’ band played the theme from “Rocky,” but BYU had no comeback left against a stifling Herd defense led by coordinator Tim Billings, who coached his final game with Marshall. Billings left after the game to take over as head coach at Southeast Missouri State.
Marshall finished with eight sacks, rarely allowing any of the three BYU quarterbacks to set up long enough to find an open receiver.
Marshall took away BYU’s running game. Standout freshman tailback Luke Staley played despite a knee problem that threatened to sideline him. The star runner finished with 3 yards on seven carries. Bullish fullback Fahu Tahi had minus-4 yards on four attempts. With those two neutralized, Marshall teed off on the passing game, delivering crunching hits. Linebacker Andre O’Neal knocked fullback Donny Atuaia’s helmet off on one fourth-quarter play. Four plays later, linebacker John Grace crushed wide receiver Margin Hooks with a hit that caused the crowd to erupt noisily.
“We felt we could get pressure on their quarterback,” Pruett said. “We played a lot of guys and we were fresh. Conditioning had a lot to do with it.”
Pennington was sacked just three times and the Herd ran for 147 yards, including 133 by Chapman, who was named the game’s most valuable player.
Herd defensive tackle Giradie Mercer was named the bowl’s lineman of the game after making seven tackles, including two for losses, and recovering a fumble. Mercer returned the fumble 25 yards for a touchdown, but the play was called back because of an illegal block.
Marshall’s margin of victory could have been larger, but kicker Billy Malashevich struggled, missing three field goal attempts.
Pennington said the Herd’s final ranking is irrelevant.
“Wherever they put us is fine,” Pennington said. “They can put us down to 25, but they can’t take away our 13-0 record. We’re undefeated and no one can argue with that.”
Pruett accepted the Motor City Bowl trophy on the back of a flatbed truck at midfield as hundreds of flash bulbs from cameras went off. Pruett hoisted the trophy and Marshall’s players lifted their helmets to the crowd as the MU band played “Sons of Marshall” after the game. The players shook hands with several fans after the game.
“Twice in four years we’ve gone undefeated,” Pruett said, reminding the media that the Herd’s seniors are 50-4 in four seasons. “We only lost one last year. To win that many games, you have to be a good team.
“Up until tonight, I thought the I-AA team we had in 1996 was the best we’ve had,” Pruett said. “This is the best team we’ve had.”
Pruett said the Herd’s second consecutive Motor City Bowl victory, combined with victories over well-known schools from other conferences should earn Marshall respect.
“We’ve beaten schools from the Southeastern Conference, Conference USA, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Mountain West,” he said. “That says a lot for our league. It’s hard to go undefeated in our league.”
Marshall not only went undefeated in the league, but overall and routed a team that won a national championship as recently as 1984 and is a veteran of 23 bowl games.
It made for the perfect ending.