PONTIAC, Mich. — Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich and Cincinnati passer Deontey Kenner both wore No. 7. The resemblance ended there.
Their statistics were reasonably comparable — Leftwich completed 17 of 30 passes for 221 yards and one touchdown, with one interception, Kenner was 19 of 39 for 189 yards and no touchdowns, with two interceptions. The difference was that Leftwich led his team to a victory, 25-14 over the Bearcats in the 2000 Motor City Bowl at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Leftwich, the game’s most valuable player, wasn’t flawless but came up big when he had to, throwing a 77-yard touchdown pass on the game’s fourth play and leading two crucial touchdown drives in the decisive third quarter.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore from Capitol Heights, Md., impressed Cincinnati coach Rick Minter.
“Leftwich is a big-time quarterback,” Minter said. “He didn’t throw too many to us. He played a good game today, and he’s only a sophomore. That’s scary because his college career’s only half over.”
Leftwich wasted no time burning Cincinnati. On the fourth play of the game, he hit speedy freshman wide receiver Darius Watts with a 77-yard touchdown pass. Watts ran a post pattern, caught the ball near the Cincinnati 40 and outran cornerback Ivan Fields into the end zone to give the Thundering Herd a 7-0 lead.
The play was made possible when a Bearcats safety inched toward the line of scrimmage to guard against the run on the first-and-10 play.
“I knew if we could get that safety to bite [on the run], Darius would run by that cornerback,” Leftwich said. “I made sure the other safety was on the other [hash mark] and he was. Once you get the ball into Darius’ hands, nobody is going to catch him.”
The big play pleased the crowd, but the third quarter performance was vintage Leftwich. He took command of the offense and drove Marshall to consecutive scoring drives, turning a 14-9 halftime deficit into a 22-14 lead.
Leftwich, running a no-huddle offense against a tired Cincinnati defense, hit Lanier Washington with a 9-yard pass to the Bearcats 32 on the Herd’s first play of the third quarter. He followed with a 30-yard pass to Nate Poole, who made a juggling catch at the 2. Two plays later, Leftwich scored on a sneak to give the Herd a 15-14 lead — and momentum.
On Marshall’s next possession, Leftwich led another touchdown drive, completing four of five passes for 24 yards in a 56-yard drive that ended with Franklin Wallace scoring on a 4-yard run. Leftwich checked off at the line of scrimmage and aligned players as he wanted during the drive.
“Herd football is what you saw in the second half,” Leftwich said. “The first half I was pressing. I told myself to come out and play loose in the second half. I was so juiced up early, I was trying to make every play. Coach [Bobby] Pruett had me calm down a little bit.”
Leftwich’s nerves showed, particularly in the second quarter when Leftwich failed to complete a pass, throwing four incompletions and an interception. By the end of the game, however, he had done what no other Marshall quarterback had accomplished, winning his first bowl game.
“I don’t think about that,” Leftwich said when reminded that former Marshall great Chad Pennington, now of the New York Jets, didn’t win his first bowl, losing to Mississippi 34-31 in 1997. “Winning the game was all I wanted to do.”
Leftwich used his legs, as well as his arm, scrambling at opportune times to pick up first downs and further frustrating a Cincinnati defense that was wearing down.
Despite playing on national television against a team that was favored to beat Marshall, Leftwich said he felt no pressure.
“Pressure wants to make you get better every day,” Leftwich said. “It pushes you to get better.”
Apparently it has worked. Leftwich went from a little-used backup whom many doubted in spring practice to a standout quarterback that Marshall plans to promote for the Heisman Trophy.
“Byron played a great game,” Marshall cornerback Danny Derricott said. “We never doubted that he would. He’s a great quarterback. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”