HUNTINGTON — Jack Lengyel might have been the only person in the nation convinced that Marshall University would pull one of the greater upsets in college football history Oct. 30, 1971.
For the Young Thundering Herd (1-5) to beat Bowling Green (5-1) sounded preposterous. Even former Marshall Athletic Director Whitey Wilson didn’t think the Herd could win.
“Whitey asked me at an alumni party before the game what I thought,” Lengyel said. “I said to him I thought we’d win it. He said, ‘You can’t be serious.’ I got mad about that. I told him that if I didn’t think we could win the game, we wouldn’t play it. After we won, he was the first to come up to me and apologize.”
Lengyel’s reasons for optimism appeared misguided. Bowling Green’s lone loss was 24-7 to Toledo, which went undefeated and won the Mid-American Conference title.
Bowling Green — coached by 35-year-old Don Nehlen — had beaten two opponents that had routed Marshall. The Falcons beat Western Michigan 27-6 on Oct. 2, just three weeks before the Broncos clobbered the Herd 37-0. Making Lengyel’s prediction appear even more outlandish was that one week before, Bowling Green defeated Miami (Ohio) 33-7. That’s the same Miami that blew out Marshall 66-6 two weeks earlier.
Bowling Green was a strong candidate to play in the Peach Bowl. Marshall was in its first year after losing nearly all of its team in the Nov. 14, 1970 plane crash.
Lengyel, though, proved a prophet, as an astonishing series of circumstances led to the Herd’s 12-10 victory.
Bowling Green never had played on artificial turf, which Marshall had installed just before the season at Fairfield Stadium. The Falcons, though, didn’t realize that. They thought Fairfield’s surface still was grass and the cleats they wore might as well have been ice skates. Some players switched to sneakers during the game, but it made little difference.
The lack of sure footing helped Marshall’s offensive line push Bowling Green defenders around all day. The Herd totaled 330 yards, more than any other opponent BGSU faced all season.
When Marshall starting quarterback Reggie Oliver was injured, backup QB Dave Walsh played admirably and scored the decisive touchdown on a 2-yard run.
Marshall’s defense also did its job, holding the MAC’s best running back, Paul Miles, to 92 yards, snapping a 33-game streak of 100-yard rushing games by Falcons ball carriers. Miles was just the third running back in NCAA history to total three 1,000-yard seasons and finished ninth in NCAA history in career yardage.
Marshall’s John Johnstonbaugh outrushed Miles 98-92 and scored the Herd’s first touchdown on a 4-yard run.
Herd linebacker Charlie Henry, all 5-foot-11, 180 pounds of him, played like an All-American, making 20 tackles, eight solo, and deflecting a pass. Henry inspired his teammates with his play. He was injured in the third quarter and sported an air cast on the sideline, as his leg was thought to be broken.
“I looked up and he was back out there,” Oliver said. “He went back out and played. He was a tough little guy and was an inspiration to all of us.”
Special teams starred, too, with MU punter Bob Eschelman averaging 42.2 yards on six punts. Eschelman launched a key 62-yarder in the third quarter.
The temperature that day climbed well into the 80s, another factor the Falcons didn’t anticipate, making Bowling Green’s heavy, wool jerseys a huge detriment.
“It was tremendously hot,” Oliver said at the time. “They were dumping ice and water on their players all day, trying to keep them cool. Coach Lengyel had us a giant cooler on the sideline. It was air conditioned and had a plastic front. We sat in it and watched their players drop like flies.”
Lengyel was elated with the triumph. Beating a mediocre Xavier squad earlier was huge in scope because it was the first victory after the crash. Bowling Green, though, was a top-25-caliber football team.
“From the opening whistle to the final gun we controlled the game,” Lengyel said. “There was an anxious moment or two, but for a team that couldn’t run the ball, we ran it pretty well.”