By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
The Marshall University Thundering Herd has wrested the rights to the game from Stateboro, GA and looked to take advantage of the friendly confines of the year-old Marshall Stadium in a reprisal of their 1991 championship game loss to Youngstown State. It would be the second of three straight clashes between the two powerhouses but it would go down as the most memorable of the trilogy.
Marshall had found themselves at 6-3 after losses to Western Carolina and Appalachian State but rebounded to close out the season with two wins, and then three more in the playoffs including a semifinal win over Delaware. The defending champion Penguins, under coach Jim Tressel, started the playoffs with a narrow win over Villanova before punching their ticket to Huntington with a road win at Northern Iowa.
The championship game was the last one televised by CBS and had Jim Nantz in the broadcast booth, and Jim Gray on the sidelines as well as 31,000+ plus in the stands for possibly the best crowd in the history of the Division I playoffs. With Youngstown, Ohio a manageable drive away, there was a solid contingent of Penguins fans, but the home faithful were hungry for a national championship.
Not surprisingly, the Herd rode the crowd and the chip on their collective shoulders to an early lead and continued to build on it as the game progressed, rolling up a seemingly insurmountable 28-0 edge late in the third quarter. Quarterback Michael Payton and star wideout Troy Brown (of New England Patriots fame) helped lead the offense that controlled most of the game.
However, the champs would not go quietly and took advantage of a couple of key injuries on the Marshall defense. Tressel's offense chipped away and miraculously tied the game at 28 with inside of three minutes left.
With a stunned crowd finding enough voice to urge on the Herd offense, Marshall methodically drove the ball downfield, carefully using timeouts and the sidelines to their advantage. However, while Payton maneuvered into field goal range, coach Jim Donnan was beating himself up over a decision he'd made leading up to the game.
Marshall had two kickers on their roster, a pair of brothers who had been standouts on the school's soccer team. One of the Merrick brothers had been the primary kicker for the season while his sibling continued to be a standout on the pitch. However, David Merrick had slept through the Thursday practice before the game and Donnan had suspended him for the chipper.
As a result, his brother Willy had stepped in and converted all four extra points on the day. Now, however, he was facing the possibility of a game winning field goal, not having attempted one the entire season. Fortunately, the Marshall offense moved all the way down to just inside the five yard line and Merrick faced just a 22-yarder for the win. The snap, hold and kick were all solid and Marshall had its first championship since the 1947 hoops team was NAIA champs.
The celebration in Huntington lasted most of the holiday season of 1992 and continued as one of the great runs in FCS history as the Thundering Herd played in five title games in six years. Marshall would win only two of those games, losing another rematch to Youngstown in 1993 and to Montana in 1995, but the extended success helped pave the way for Marshall's jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision (then I-A) following the 1996 title.
While some of the memories of 1992 are still fresh, much has changed in both Youngstown and Huntington and some of the key players have dealt with issues as well. Coach Donnan moved on to Georgia after the Montana loss in 1995 but was fired in 2000 after back-to-back 8-4 seasons and three straight losses to Georgia Tech, despite winning four straight bowl games.
He moved to ESPN and became a motivation speaker but declared bankruptcy in 2011 and is currently under investigation for running a ponzi scheme and defrauding investors.
Jim Tressel won three more titles at Youngstown before moving on to Ohio State and winning the bowl championship in 2002. However, despite continued success and additional bowl wins Tressel was dismissed in 2011 after reported NCAA violations involving players, and lack of institutional oversight of the football program.
There were reports of improprieties back in his days at Youngstown State but the damage was done. Tressel has not resurfaced as a serious candidate for a top FBS job.
As for the programs, Marshall's move was wildly successful initially, led largely by the combination of quarterback Chad Pennington and wide receiver Randy Moss. Coach Bob Pruett won the 1996 title in his first year and continued to have success after the jump to the FBS level as the Herd finished ranked in the top 25 three times between 1999-2002.
Pruett's tenure started its demise after allegations of impropriety in dealings with NCAA investigators and he finished at Marshall in 2004 after a 6-6 season, leaving with a 94-23 record.
The program has suffered since, going 40-57 in the last nine years and struggling to find success in Conference USA. Marshall continues to play in what is now called Joan C. Edwards Stadium and owns the highest home winning percentage of any facility in the country, just ahead of Alabama.
As for Youngstown State, the four titles in seven years and five title game appearances in nine seasons were the high water mark of the program.
Since the title game loss to Georgia Southern in 1999, the Penguins are a mere 2-2 in the postseason with a semifinal appearance in 2006 the only accomplishment of note. Despite an impressive win over Pittsburgh this year the team missed the playoffs for the 11th time in 13 seasons after finishing 7-4.
Marshall played in all three back-to-back rematches in FCS title game history (Georgia Southern and Furman first faced off twice in the title game in the 1980's but their rematch was separated by a few years) but the first was certainly the most treasured.
As we head towards the first immediate rematch in 16 years and only the fourth in history, let's hope that Sam Houston State and North Dakota State are channeling the Beatles, "It's wonderful to be here, it's certainly a thrill." But, most of all, "We hope you will enjoy the show."