Mid-Majors in the BCS Era: 1999 Marshall Thundering Herd
In its second season, the BCS faced a challenge from an unbeaten Marshall team that had recently transitioned from the I-AA ranks.
The Marshall Thundering Herd was one of just three undefeated teams remaining in the country as they prepared for the 1999 MAC championship game. The other two teams, Big East champion Virginia Tech and ACC champion Florida State, had already wrapped up 11-0 regular seasons to claim their leagues’ automatic invitations in the BCS. The Thundering Herd, sitting at 11th in both the AP and coaches’ polls prior to their rematch against Western Michigan, had to win their league title just to earn the MAC’s only guaranteed bowl berth.
“Unless the Bowl Championship Series computers experience an early Y2K problem, No. 2 Virginia Tech (11-0) will indeed play top-ranked Florida State (11-0) for the national title on Jan. 4 in the Sugar Bowl,” columnist Mike Kern published in the Philadelphia Daily News on December 2, three days before the final BCS rankings would be released for the 1999 season. “Good thing, too, because the first time a one-loss team, in this instance No. 3 Nebraska, nudges out an unbeaten because eight math majors say so, the system has a major-league PR glitch. With apologies to Marshall, the Mid-American Conference does not compute.”
Florida State, which had lost to Tennessee in Arizona for the championship the previous season, was assured of one place in the national championship. Meanwhile, Marshall was forced to survive one final test just to reach the postseason at all. And even Virginia Tech’s spot in New Orleans was hardly assured, as it appeared through the final weeks of the season that Nebraska might edge the Hokies for the spot opposite the Seminoles.
Despite losing to Texas on October 23 in Austin, the Cornhuskers could potentially wipe out that blemish in a rematch with the Longhorns in the Big 12 championship game. There was plenty of speculation that the computers might evaluate Nebraska’s schedule favorably enough to provide a decisive bump in the BCS standings past the Hokies. After the Huskers dominated the rematch over Texas 22-6 for the conference title, the scrutiny of Virginia Tech’s schedule increased. Kern continued in his December 2 column:
Is Virginia Tech better than Nebraska? I don’t know. Heck, the Hokies might not be better than Wisconsin or Florida. That’s not the point. It’s popular to knock them, because they opened with Division I-AA James Madison. Or because they play in the Big Least. The last time I looked, the Atlantic Coast Conference wasn’t exactly the NFC Central. Ditto the Big 12. Like it or not, the Hokies play in one of the six major conferences. They did everything they were supposed to do.
Ultimately Nebraska failed to close the gap with its Big 12 championship, finishing 1.3 points behind Virginia Tech in the final BCS standings. The loss in the first Texas matchup doomed the Cornhuskers — that year’s incarnation of the BCS formula added a full point to a team’s final BCS score for each defeat. Had they won in Austin in October, Nebraska would have certainly been ranked ahead of Virginia Tech (and possibly Florida State) by the humans.
Instead Nebraska was relegated to a Fiesta Bowl consolation match against Tennessee, and the Hokies claimed the right to play Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. “I’d been telling them all the time, ‘Take care of business, and we’ll be in the big game,’” Frank Beamer said after the BCS confirmed his team’s place in the title game. “I’m just glad it worked out, and that I wasn’t telling them a story.”
Snubbed by the polls throughout the season, and without any means of convincing computers of his team’s legitimacy, Marshall head coach Bob Pruett knew that even if his team took care of business in its final game they would be nowhere near the big game in New Orleans.
The last three undefeated teams standing at the end of 1999 all played one common opponent during the season – a 6-5 Clemson team already scheduled to play Mississippi State in the Peach Bowl. Florida State, forced to travel to Death Valley for the ACC battle against Clemson, needed a second-half comeback and a 39-yard Sebastian Janikowski field goal with just over five minutes left to survive the scare against the Tigers. Virginia Tech, the only team of the trio to enjoy home-field advantage against the Tigers, was up 14-3 by halftime as Michael Vick and crew cruised to a 33-13 victory in the inter-conference matchup.
In the season opener, two weeks before its trip to Virginia Tech, Clemson welcomed Marshall to Memorial Stadium for the debut of new head coach Tommy Bowden in his first game since leaving Tulane. On a humid South Carolina afternoon, the two teams locked into a defensive struggle where Marshall placekicker Billy Malashevich and his Clemson counterpart Tony Lazzara traded field goals and the Herd went into halftime up 6-3.
Chad Pennington, the Herd’s senior quarterback, was mentioned during the preseason as a potential Heisman contender. After losing to Montana 22-20 in the 1995 I-AA national championship game as a true freshman and earning Southern Conference freshman of the year honors, Pennington redshirted the following season as head coach Bob Pruett opted to protect another year of eligibility at the I-A level for Pennington. That extra year proved to be a prescient move by Pruett, as Pennington guided Marshall to immediate and unexpected success in the MAC and became a national name in his final season.
“It’s really hard for a guy from a small school to win,” Pennington told Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch when asked about his Heisman chances for the magazine’s season preview. “If I have a chance, it’s going to be a reflection on how well our team has done. We have a lot of potential, and everybody understands that. But potential is another way of saying, ‘You haven’t done anything yet.’ We think we’re good enough to be in the Top 20. Whether we get there or not remains to be seen.”
Against a vicious Clemson secondary, though, the quarterback’s award credentials faced a serious blow. The Tigers intercepted Pennington three times, and neither team managed to sustain any offense through three quarters. The hosts gained the lead for the first time all game with a little over seven minutes left, pulling ahead as tailback Javis Austin rushed for the touchdown from three yards out. It was now up to Clemson’s defense to either win or lose Bowden’s first home game and potentially burst a BCS Buster bubble before it had even inflated.
Pennington knew the stakes and stepped up to revive his team’s flagging dreams. Engineering an 11-play, 74-yard drive, Pennington and the Herd drained all but 70 seconds off the clock on their long march downfield. The quarterback was a perfect 6-of-6 passing on the drive and also scrambled for 12 yards on 3rd-and-10 at his own 36, keeping the drive alive with every physical tool at his disposal. Herd running back Doug Chapman capped the victory march, carrying outside the left tackle and picking up perfect blocks from his linemen for the seven-yard touchdown. With 1:10 remaining, Malashevich punched through the extra point to restore a three-point lead.
Clemson had a minute to respond. Moving into field goal range, the Tigers covered 67 yards in 10 plays to set up Chris Campbell – in to attempt the kick due to earlier misses by Lazzara – up for a game-tying try from 34 yards out. Stepping into the kick, Campbell pushed the attempt wide left and time expired, deflating the majority of the fans in attendance. “We have played three teams in South Carolina in the past three years, and we’ve won all three in the last second,” Pruett chuckled after the game. “I don’t know how much [more the] heart can take coming down here.”
In its first game of the season, Marshall defeated the Tigers by the same margin of victory that Florida State would manage on the same turf seven weeks later. Three months later, despite fielding top-ten units on both sides of the ball, the Thundering Herd came to find the BCS echoing Kern’s sentiment. Even though the other undefeated candidates fleetingly found their own schedules pilloried, Marshall was graded not on the dominance of its own performances but the inconsequentiality of the rest of its conference.
Since transitioning up a subdivision as the reigning I-AA national champion to join the MAC in 1997, Marshall had dominated the Midwestern mid-major league. Entering 1999, the Thundering Herd was the back-to-back league champion and went 22-4 over its first two seasons of I-A play – a winning percentage (.846) essentially equivalent to the five-year stretch between their 1992 and 1996 national championships (.850). By the end of September, the team tied and then surpassed the 1970s Alabama teams of Bear Bryant and Tom Osborne’s 1980s Nebraska squads for the most wins by a Division I school over a decade.
But as it rolled through its September and October schedule, extending the longest winning streak in the nation weekend after weekend, the glacial pace with which it crept up the polls was indicative of the skepticism still borne by much of the nation as to Marshall’s legitimacy. They wouldn’t appear in the AP poll until defeating Bowling Green 35-16 on September 18 to improve to 3-0 and enter as the 21st-ranked team in the country.
By mid-October, after routing both Temple and the Miami RedHawks, they climbed up to 15th in the AP Poll and 16th in the Coaches Poll. “I’m not so sure that the skeptics are waiting for us to make mistakes so they can jerk us right out of there,” Pennington said about the tenuous hold his team held on a spot in the rankings. “We understand that every game is crucial for our success as far as being ranked.”
The numbers, though, told a story of dominance. Five games into the season, Marshall’s defense ranked sixth nationally, allowing only 258.8 yards and 8.6 points per outing. Pennington, rising in the Heisman polls, was completing 62.7% of his passes for 1569 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Herd was thundering on both sides of the ball, and special teams were also an area of strength. Malashevich anchored the kicking game, while James Williams provided electric returns on special teams.
After a bye week following the Miami victory, Marshall hosted the Toledo Rockets in a Thursday night showdown. To highlight a rematch between the two teams that had squared off against one another in the past two MAC championship games, ESPN’s College GameDay crew came to Huntington for the first time in school history. Finally the nation was starting to notice the Thundering Herd and the conference in which they played.
Marshall didn’t disappoint in the first half. After the Herd was stopped on their opening drive, quarterback Tavares Bolden – making just his second career start for the Rockets – tossed a ball into coverage that was tipped into the hands of defensive back Maurice Hines on the Toledo 44. With a fresh set of downs, Pennington led Marshall down the short field in just over a minute, tossing an eight-yard touchdown to David Foye on the fourth play of the drive for a lead that would not be relinquished. Toledo kicked a field goal before the end of the first quarter and score twice more in the second, but they were still down 24-13 as they trudged to their locker room for halftime.
Both offenses sputtered in the third quarter before Pennington relit the pilot light on the offense, torching the Rockets with a five-play drive that put the game completely out of reach midway through the fourth quarter. With 6:06 remaining in the game, the lead stretched to 18 as James Williams hauled in a 15-yard touchdown reception, Pennington’s third scoring toss of the game. Toledo, knowing the game was out of reach, could muster no more momentum, and Doug Chapman would score his second rushing touchdown of the game to seal the final score at 38-13.
“Being a senior quarterback, sometimes you want to make plays instead of being patient,” Pennington would admit after the team in the locker room after the game. “In the first half I was real patient, but then in the third quarter I didn’t do what I was supposed to and I put my team in some bad positions. I’ll learn from it, but I’m proud of our offense. We spread the ball around pretty well.”
The Thundering Herd had little opportunity over the rest of October to make such a statement. Playing against winless Buffalo, Marshall built up a 38-3 lead by halftime, outgaining the Bulls 321-124 in the first two quarters despite Buffalo enjoying a ten-minute advantage in time of possession. Pennington would exit the game in the third quarter after completing the last of his five touchdown passes to John Cooper, handing the offense over to Leftwich after putting in a 20-of-25, 338-yard performance.
Marshall moved to 7-0, yet the Herd still was struggling against an inferiority complex. “If 59 is not enough to impress [the voters],” Pruett retorted against accusations that his team had run up the score in the 59-3 blowout of the Bulls, “then they’re not being fair to these other people.”
“We look at it as David and Goliath,” defensive back Rogers Beckett told the press after the Buffalo victory. “We always look at ourselves as being David. In this game, we could have been looked at as Goliath. You can’t really get big heads.”
The Thundering Herd returned home to prepare for their meeting with Northern Illinois on the final weekend of October. All too aware that they had stumbled in late October each of the past two seasons, Marshall was adhering to Beckett’s philosophy as they prepared for the visit from the Huskies. The box score at first glance would make it look like another breezy rout as the Herd demolished the Huskies 41-9, but despite winning the game Marshall was forced to deal with several tough losses.
Chapman, the team’s leading rusher with 429 yards and six touchdowns entering the NIU game, hyperextended his knee on the opening drive. Near halftime, Beckett also left the game when he suffered a concussion, leaving a hole in the defensive backfield. But Llow Turner would step into the backfield and take advantage of the extra playing time to rush for 104 yards and two touchdowns, and the Herd defense responded with three interceptions of NIU quarterback Chris Finlen.
“I said all week I thought they were the best team in the history of the MAC,” Huskies head coach Joe Novak admitted after the defeat. “We hung in there for a while, but they have got such talent and so many weapons and Chapman didn’t even play. They have got so many things going. They are like a bomb – you know sooner or later they are going to go off and you just hold your breath.”
After the win over Northern Illinois, the Herd remained locked at 13th in the AP poll and 14th in the BCS standings. Though they were now 8-0 in the standings, riding a 12-game winning streak that stood as the longest in the nation, Marshall still had BYU (who was 7-1 at that point and leading the inaugural campaign of the Mountain West Conference) breathing down their neck as the team directly behind them in the BCS standings.
“To be honest, we don’t worry about the pressure,” Pennington said about the national recognition. “We know that we have to win the MAC championship to get to a bowl game. That’s basically our road to a bowl game. We understand that people are looking for us to slip up.”
On a road trip to face 2-7 Kent State, the Herd nearly gave the nation the gaffe it had been seeking. Marshall started strong, as Pennington found receivers James Williams and Lanier Washington for a pair of first-quarter touchdowns, but they were held scoreless in the second quarter as the Golden Flashes clawed the deficit back to 14-10 by halftime.
Kent State kicker Dave Pavich booted his third field goal of the game early in the fourth quarter to pull his team within five points of Marshall, but the Thundering Herd offense went to work on a 13-play, 72-yard drive that ground away much of the final frame. Pennington would keep the ball himself for a one-yard plunge with 7:17 remaining in the game, and the Marshall defense held firm for the final possessions to secure the 28-16 victory.
The victory proved Pyrrhic in some ways, though, as Marshall slipped out of the top 15 of the BCS standings. Taking their place was BYU, the Cougars romping to a 30-7 win at San Diego State while the Herd was struggling at Kent State. The team’s star quarterback had also been banged up in the win, as Pennington took a shot to his right throwing hand in the fourth quarter.
If anything was working in Marshall’s favor, it was the fact that none of the other unbeaten and once-beaten teams around the country had distinguished themselves in the eyes of the nation. “There is something that all the Bowl Championship Series computers Disney can buy can’t tell you,” Reggie Hayes wrote in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel the Tuesday after Marshall’s win over the Golden Flashes. “There is no No. 1 college football team. The truth is, this is the most flawed bunch of national contenders in years. There’s not a dominant power to be found. There’s not a team that won’t unravel given the right circumstances, the wrong play call or a flaky kicker.”
Looming next on the schedule was a trip to Kalamazoo to face Western Michigan in a showdown of MAC division leaders. If any team was destined to unravel Marshall, it was the Broncos. Entering the matchup with the Herd at 7-2, Western Michigan had rapidly emerged among the MAC’s elite thanks to the cannon arm of senior quarterback Tim Lester. Tied with Pennington for the league lead in touchdown passes, Lester had also improved his scrambling ability during the offseason and was no longer a liability if pressure came in the pocket. Pruett’s defense would have a tough task containing the Broncos offense on their visit to Waldo Stadium.
Doug Chapman, returning after missing two games with his knee hyperextension, scored the first touchdown on a three-yard burst in the first quarter. The hosts responded with a 53-yard field goal from kicker Brad Selent before taking a 10-7 lead in the second quarter on a four-yard run by tailback Robert Sanford with just under five minutes remaining in the half. Marshall retook the lead before halftime, though, as Chapman scored his second touchdown of the game with 2:55 left on the clock before intermission.
Pennington took to the air at the beginning of the second half, hitting Williams and Washington for a pair of 19-yard touchdown strikes. Sandwiched around freshman defensive back Yancey Satterwhite’s interception of Lester and a 26-yard field goal by JR Jenkins, the third quarter ended with Marshall sitting on a commanding 31-10 lead.
Lester found Mobolaji Afariogun for a final Broncos touchdown in the fourth quarter, but by then the Herd secondary had already rattled the quarterback with a pair of picks. “Our defense did a great job,” Pruett noted after the win. “They swarmed around the football and put pressure on the quarterback. Anytime you put pressure on the quarterback it’s going to make it easier on your defense. We forced them into some mistakes and then we were able to answer.”
Marshall’s victory over Western Michigan had been answered with a return to the BCS standings as the 14th team on the list. With just one game left in the regular season, the Herd returned home to recuperate from the past fortnight of travel and close calls before squaring off against Ohio. Though they already knew they would host Western Michigan on December 3 for the MAC championship regardless of the result, the Herd had to keep their focus on the 5-5 Bobcats if they were to try to force the BCS’s hand.
After a defensive struggle in the first quarter, Ohio put the first points on the board eight seconds into the second quarter as Kevin Kerr’s 53-yard field goal attempt sailed over the crossbar and between the posts for a 3-0 Bobcats lead. Less than five minutes later, Pennington found David Foye for a 29-yard touchdown pass. Chapman’s first scoring run of the day, coupled with a botched extra point by Jenkins, would extend the Herd lead to 13-3 at halftime.
Chapman scored the only touchdown of the third quarter, carrying over the goal line from eight yards out to put Marshall ahead 20-3. Pennington would lob two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, hitting Williams on strikes of 18 and 71 yards as he finally figured out the exotic defensive schemes of the Bobcats.
“They did a good job, had a good scheme,” Pennington noted about Ohio’s defense after securing the win. “They mixed up their blitzes very well. I didn’t play well in the first half, but our guys hung in there and our defense is just plain awesome. Our offense hung in there and finally took advantage of their blitzing.”
Marshall had survived the last challenge of the regular season, matching Florida State and Virginia Tech win for win on the road to an 11-0 season. But while the Seminoles and Hokies could kick back and wait for bowl season, safely positioned as ACC and Big East champion respectively, the Thundering Herd still had that MAC championship rematch with Western Michigan that could not only derail any last-gasp hope of BCS selection but keep them out of the postseason altogether.
Western Michigan was intent on stealing the MAC’s berth in the Motor City Bowl for itself. Shaking off his prior performance against the Herd defense, Tim Lester found Corey Alston for a 16-yard touchdown to open the scoring midway through the first quarter. Brad Selent added a 31-yard field goal in the final minute of the opening frame to put the Broncos up 10-0. Unable to answer the scores, Marshall fell into a deeper hole when Robert Sanford added a one-yard scoring plunge over the goal line five minutes into the second quarter. When Selent punched through a 32-yard field goal on the final play of the half, the Thundering Herd went into the locker room in a 20-0 hole.
“At halftime we went in and I told our offense and our coaches that we were going to come in an go no-huddle and try to change the tempo of the game and get the crowd back into the game and get our rhythm going and get them off rhythm,” Pruett related after the game. “I felt if we could do that, we could start scoring and our defense would key off it. The last thing I told them was, ‘Guys, you’re not carrying yourself like you think you can win. Fellas, before we go out there you gotta believe we can win this game.’”
The pep talk took a moment to settle, as Selent added another 36-yard field goal on Western Michigan’s opening drive of the second half to extend the visitor’s lead to 23-0. But once Pennington and the offense got back on the field in the third quarter, they finally found their rhythm and started to put the Broncos defense on its heels. The Herd finally scored with six minutes left in the period, Nate Poole on the receiving end of a 38-yard pass from Pennington.
The defense stiffened against Lester and the Broncos, quickly forcing Western Michigan’s offense back to the sidelines. Before the end of the quarter, Marshall’s quick-strike offense pulled within three. First Doug Chapman burst through the line for a 24-yard touchdown run with 3:37 left in the quarter; the team would fail to convert a two-point attempt, and the Herd came within ten points at 23-13. 84 seconds later, Pennington found James Williams for a 16-yard catch in the endzone, and JR Jenkins’s extra point rejuvenated the home crowd of 28,069 as Marshall pulled within three of taking its first lead of the game.
The Herd defense, ranked first in the nation in points allowed, prevented Western Michigan from adding any further to its lead before the fourth quarter. Marshall’s offense finally went ahead two and a half minutes into the final quarter as Chapman punched in his second rushing score of the game from two yards out. Jenkins put the extra point through the uprights, and the crowd roared as the Herd went ahead 27-23.
With 7:20 left in the game, Western Michigan retook the lead as Lester found tight end Jake Moreland for a four-yard scoring pass. Once again the Thundering Herd was in danger of falling to the Broncos. The offense failed to gain any momentum on the drive following Lester’s touchdown pass, and it fell to the defense to save Marshall’s season. “Our defense has always picked up the offense and our offense has picked our defense up,” Pennington said with the benefit of hindsight about his teammates. “Believe me, there was never any doubt in any of our minds that we could not come back and win this game.”
The defense gave Pennington and crew the ball with 3:09 left on the clock and 74 yards to travel down the field. Bogged down in its own end, the Herd managed to gain only five yards on their first three plays of the drive. Faced with 4th and 5 at his own 31-yard line, Pennington found James Williams for a seven-yard gain to keep the comeback bid alive. On the next play, the quarterback scrambled away from the rush down the left sideline and picked up 33 yards. The referee tacked on another 15 yards after Pennington was hit late out of bounds, putting the Thundering Herd at the Bronco 14 with 51 seconds remaining.
Marshall’s offense worked its way to the shadow of the goal line as time ticked down. On third and goal, with seven seconds remaining in the game, Pennington took the snap and bootlegged right. As he rolled out of the pocket, tight end Eric Pinkerton streaked across the endzone. Rifling in the ball, the quarterback found Pinkerton for the winning score – Pennington’s 100th touchdown at the I-A level and the 115th of his career at Marshall. Jenkins punched through the extra point to put the Thundering Herd up 34-30, and time ran out before Western Michigan could muster any answer.
“We are 12-0 and nobody can argue that,” Pennington said after the game as his team awaited its fate in the BCS. “We did what all great championship teams do – we found a way to win.”
Though they were one of just three teams to finish the season undefeated, the Thundering Herd finished 12th in the BCS standings. They worked their way high enough in the standings to be eligible for an at-large berth, but after turning away 10th-ranked Tulane the previous season there was little hope for Marshall to travel anywhere other than Detroit to play a bowl game.
Florida State and Virginia Tech, were scheduled to play one another for the BCS title at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Marshall was forced to content itself with a third straight trip to the Motor City Bowl and a showdown against Mountain West champion BYU.
Some people, though, fought to send Marshall somewhere other than Detroit for its postseason reward. Ira Berkow of the New York Times, in particular, used his soapbox to stump for the Thundering Herd. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist headed to Huntington before the MAC championship, penning a “Sports of The Times” column for the November 26 edition that failed to reverberate with the pollsters and went counter against the computer ranking of his own newspaper:
Of course it would seem unfair, unkind and rather rotten, too. Here is Marshall University, that doughty college located in Huntington, in the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia, whose Thundering Herd football team is undefeated, at 10-0. It is only one of three Division I-A teams to be unbeaten, and yet it is given the back of the pollsters’ hand, 11th in two of the most important polls, 12th in the other.
Marshall is shown no consideration to play in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, in which the two top-ranked college football teams (they happen to be the other two teams that are still undefeated, to be sure) will decide the alleged national champion…. Unlike in the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, and even in the I-AA football 16-team playoff series, “there is no chance for a Cinderella team in the I-A set-up,” said Ricky Hazel, an official for Marshall. “And people love Cinderella.”
Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden, who watched his Tigers lose to all three of the undefeated teams during the regular season, had a unique take on the Herd’s position on the outside looking in at the big-time bowl berths. “Well, they’d be competitive against either one of those teams,” Bowden told Berkow for the article a week before the final BCS selections. “Do they have the depth of talent to win? I’m not sure. It would be fun to see, though, wouldn’t it?”
The country had no way of finding out how Marshall would fare against even another BCS-conference powerhouse. Instead of the Herd, the BCS selectors settled on 9-2 Michigan and 9-2 Tennessee to fill the remaining berths after slotting in conference champions from the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, and Pac-10. Instead of facing the Crimson Tide, or the Cornhuskers, the Thundering Herd started to prepare for their matchup against the Cougars scheduled two days after Christmas.
First, though, Chad Pennington headed to Manhattan for the Heisman Trophy presentation. After a 12-game season where he had completed 68.4% of his passes (258-of-377) for 3592 yards, with 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, Pennington joined fellow quarterbacks Drew Brees of Purdue, Joe Hamilton of Georgia Tech, and Michael Vick of Virginia Tech and Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne at the Downtown Athletic Club on December 11.
At the same time Pennington was feted around the Big Apple, the team had to deal with a trend all too common to the sport as Houston courted Bob Pruett with the opportunity to take over their program. Just like Tulane with Tommy Bowden the previous season, Marshall was about to lose its head coach after going undefeated.
It was initially reported that Pruett had accepted the offer on December 10. On the following day, the morning of the Heisman presentation, newspapers around the country were retracting the earlier report as the coach decided to stay at his alma mater rather than tripling his salary with a move to Texas.
Pennington ultimately finished fifth in the Heisman voting, earning 21 first-place votes but finishing far behind record-breaking Badger back Ron Dayne in the balloting. The top-five finish came close to matching former teammate Randy Moss’ fourth-place finish in 1997, shedding another dose of national attention on Huntington and the Herd. But individual accolades would mean nothing if they couldn’t finish off the season with a win over BYU, the same team that had been postseason fodder for potential BCS Buster Tulane at the Liberty Bowl a year before.
December 27 rolled around, and the Thundering Herd and Cougars took the field for a battle of top-25 teams in the third annual Motor City Bowl. BYU, still the benchmark by which mid-majors tested themselves, was forced for a second straight year to play the consolation prize for a team denied entry into a BCS bowl. Though they had faded down the stretch, losing to Utah and Wyoming in their final two games of the regular season as the Utes forced a tie for the inaugural Mountain West crown, the Cougars still fielded a top-30 defense and an offense that averaged four touchdowns a game during the regular season.
BYU put the first points on the board as quarterback Kevin Feterik drove the offense 57 yards on its second possession to set up kicker Owen Pochman for a 28-yard field goal 13 minutes into the contest. Up 3-0, the Cougars would score the only points of the first quarter in what was settling into a struggle for both offenses. Things looked even more calamitous for Marshall when kicker Billy Malashevich, who had split time with junior JR Jenkins throughout the season, clanged a field goal attempt off the right upright as the Herd failed to gain any points on their next drive.
Marshall’s defense stymied Feterik and the Cougars on its next drive, getting the ball quickly back into Pennington’s hands. The Heisman finalist, heaving an underthrown deep ball under pressure a few plays into the drive, was picked off by defensive back Jared Lee.
But BYU never enjoyed the momentum shift, as Nate Poole forced Lee to fumble on the interception return and Lanier Washington fell on the ball to recover for Marshall. On the next play, Pennington dumped a short five-yard pass off to tailback Doug Chapman in traffic. Darting and weaving through the defense, Chapman scampered the final 25 yards for the score. With 8:18 remaining in the first half, the Thundering Herd had snatched a 7-3 lead. Malashevich missed another field goal attempt before halftime, again hitting the right upright as the Herd gained nothing from the first of two interceptions in the game by safety Rogers Beckett.
Marshall soon extended its lead in the second half. BYU stalled on their opening drive after Feterik was knocked out of the game with a broken collarbone on a hard hit by blitzing defensive back Michael Owens. After incurring a penalty on the ensuing punt, the Herd was backed up against the goal line on their own 4-yard line. Pruett called a handoff in for Chapman, who gained some breathing room with a nine-yard gain. On 2nd and 1, the coach sent in another run call to Pennington. As the quarterback handed the ball off to Chapman, the back burst free into the open and churned out the 87 yards for the longest rush of his career and his second touchdown of the night.
“The offensive line moved them off the ball and Lanier Wahington made a great block on the safety,” Chapman replayed for reporters after the game. “I stumbled, I caught my balance and noticed that nobody was in the middle of the field. I just hoped to God I wouldn’t get caught because I was tired and I was cramping up.”
Forced to play from behind with their backup quarterbacks, BYU sputtered offensively. Charlie Peterson offered up the Cougars’ second interception to Beckett, the safety returning the pick 16 yards within one yard of BYU’s endzone.
On the following play after the turnover, Chapman plunged over the line for his third score of the night. Though there was still 14:07 remaining in the bowl game, the result essentially decided.
After the confetti started falling in the Pontiac Silverdome, Pruett talked up his team after they had brought their school its first perfect season at the I-A level. “We’re a top-10 team, I know that. If you ask me, they should be number one. Two out of [four] years undefeated, these guys know how to win. You have to be a great football team to win that many.”
But there would be no shot at the title for Marshall. Florida State went on to defeat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and finished the 1999 season as the only other undefeated team besides the Herd to claim the crystal football as the BCS’s national champion. Marshall’s run of dominance, on the heels of Tulane’s perfect season in 1998, forced pundits to look deeper into the fairness of a system that turned away dynamic teams of the Herd’s caliber. Just two years into the existence of the BCS, the calls for a national playoff were already starting to intensify.
“I think Florida State should now have to play Marshall, don’t you think?” Bob Edwards asked John Feinstein on NPR’s Morning Edition the day after the Seminoles’ win in the Sugar Bowl.
“Absolutely,” Feinstein agreed. “See that’s the problem with the system. Marshall went undefeated, 13-and-0, and yet they’re denied the chance to play for the national championship in a tournament. Tulane last year, 12-and-0. Twenty years ago, Bob, if basketball had had the same system that college football has, Indiana State with Larry Bird would have been told to go play in the NIT, the consolation tournament, because their schedule wasn’t tough enough and Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird for the national championship — the highest-rated basketball game ever — never would have happened.”
“So no one has defeated the Thundering Herd this year and for much of last year, for that matter,” Edwards continued. “And yet they don’t get to contend for the national championship.”
“Well, exactly right,” Feinstein answered. “And how can you tell a group of athletes you never lost but you are not the champion?”
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