HUNTINGTON — On Nov. 2, 2002, the pulse surrounding Marshall football collectively stopped when Byron Leftwich went down with a tibia fracture in a 34-20 loss to Akron.
Everyone thought Leftwich’s season — hyped to be a Heisman Trophy campaign — was over.
Everyone thought Marshall’s reign as the Mid-American Conference East Division champion was over.
Everyone thought the Thundering Herd’s dynasty since moving to Division I-A was over.
It was thought to be over in a snap ... literally.
After all, when Leftwich went down, Marshall also fell to the Zips, who were 1-7 before beating the Herd.
Ten days later, the Herd had to stare down hated rival Miami (Ohio), which had become the jilted little brother of the MAC since the Herd took over as top dog in the East Division.
The RedHawks were a successful team and, this time, they sensed blood with rising quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was a long shot for the Herd to get out of the RedHawks’ grasp with Leftwich out.
Enter Stan Hill — a virtually unknown sophomore quarterback who hadn’t started a game since his senior year in Tupelo, Mississippi.
“Wait ... who?”
That was the sentiment of the Marshall faithful leading into that game.
With all the focus on Leftwich, no one really knew who Hill was, aside from teammates and then-Marshall coach Bob Pruett.
And the only real action Hill had seen prior to his first start was when Leftwich went down in the first half against Akron. Hill finished 7 of 14 for 37 yards and an interception in a vanilla performance that didn’t leave much room for confidence going against one of the MAC’s top teams.
That’s when everything changed.
Hill took full advantage of his one game in the sun on a Tuesday night in Huntington, finishing the game with 325 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns in Marshall’s 36-34 win that put the Herd back in the MAC East driver’s seat.
To this day, it was one of the most surprising and clutch performances I’ve seen in my time observing Marshall football.
Oddly enough, it is also memorable for me because it is the last game I watched in the stands as a Marshall student.
I helped take over the Marshall football beat for The Parthenon soon after, and I haven’t seen a game in the stands since.
A clear perspective of the circumstances lets you know how clutch Hill’s performance was, though.
Hill was taking over for a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback who had become a household name for the Herd.
That first start also came in the national spotlight — a spotlight that was supposed to be for Leftwich — with a prime-time Tuesday night ESPN contest.
And the fate of the Herd’s season was on Hill’s shoulders. A win and Marshall was alive in the MAC. A loss and the season would be deemed a failure.
No pressure, kid.
To go 25 of 39 through the air with four touchdowns (also two interceptions) was enough, but that final drive etched Hill into Marshall lore for life.
Trailing 34-29, Hill led Marshall on a 57-yard drive in just 1:39 for the game-winning score, but one aspect made it more sweet.
He won the game in a way that even Leftwich couldn’t have.
With Marshall at the 1-yard line, Hill took a snap and faked a throw that got a Miami edge defender in the air. That was all the opening Hill needed to get around the outside and hurdle a defender into the end zone for the game-winner.
Leftwich was known for many things, but speed to get to the edge wasn’t one of them.
In his first start, Hill cemented his legacy — even though he still falls victim to the performance being the second-most talked about aspect of that game.
Following the contest, Marshall fans rushed the field in celebration of the win and Miami assistant Jon Wauford was arrested for punching a fan.
The RedHawks’ coaching staff also trashed Marshall’s press box, which cost Miami a chunk of change to repair.
In the end, Hill’s performance helped Marshall lock up control of the East Division.
And, in a way, I guess it led to a lockup of a different sort.