After weeks of waiting and an undefeated start to the year, the Marshall Thundering Herd is ranked in the AP poll for the first time since Bobby Pruett and Byron Leftwich roamed the sidelines of Joan C. Edwards Stadium. While the current team at Marshall has not shown the heights they can reach with the addition of the playoffs and the guarantee of a non-power conference school in a January 1 bowl game, many teams will begin to compare this team to some of the best teams in Marshall football history, so let's see how this team matches up.
The year after Marshall reached their first national championship game under George Chaump, Marshall returned their high-powered offense and went on a run to return to the playoffs. Marshall went 11-2 on the year, highlighted by a huge late season comeback in Cullowhee, NC against Western Carolina to win their first Southern Conference championship. Marshall returned to their second consecutive I-AA playoff, where they reached the second round before being eliminated by Southern Conference rival Furman.
The first national championship team went 12-3 behind Walter Payton award-winning quarterback Michael Payton and "Mr. Everything" Troy Brown. The Herd's three losses came to Missouri, Western Carolina, and Appalachian State, the latter two costing Marshall their second Southern Conference title. The Marshall offense averaged over 40 points per game, while the defense allowed fewer than 20 points per game. In the second year of Joan C. Edwards Stadium, the new stadium won the bid to host the I-AA national championship from 1992-1996, giving Marshall a bit of a home field advantage in their rematch against Jim Tressel's Youngstown State Penguins. In what is now known in Huntington simply as "The Kick", Willie Merrick's first field goal attempt gave Marshall their first national title and began their "Team of the ‘90's" dynasty.
The team that is, arguably, the greatest I-AA team of all-time. The year after Jim Donnan took the Herd to a last-second loss to Montana in the 1995 National Championship game, Donnan left for the Georgia job. In 1996, Marshall brought Florida defensive coordinator and Marshall alum Bobby Pruett back to Huntington. Pruett brought with him former Florida backup Eric Kresser and troubled local recruit Randy Moss from Florida State. As Chad Pennington took a redshirt after starting in 1995, the Herd offense ran wild, averaging nearly 44 points per game with Kresser surpassing 3,000 yards passing, Moss 1,000 yards receiving, and both Doug Chapman and Erik Thomas rushing for over 1,000 yards each. The overlooked aspect of this team was the defense, with 3-time All-American defensive tackle Billy Lyon and corner Melvin Cunningham leading a defense that allowed only 14 points per game. Marshall ran away with the Southern Conference championship and stormed through the playoffs, gaining revenge on Montana on the way to their second national championship.
In their senior year, Heisman trophy finalist Chad Pennington, Doug Chapman, and Rogers Beckett led Marshall to their third undefeated season and their third consecutive Mid-American Conference championship. The Thundering Herd began their season with a 13-10 upset of the Clemson Tigers in Death Valley, Marshall's first victory over an ACC school since their 1941 victory over Wake Forest. Pennington, Chapman, and future NFL receiver Nate Poole helped to lead Marshall's offense to over 35 points per game. Unlike in many previous years, Marshall's strength was their defense, where players like Beckett, John Grace and Danny Derricott held opponents to 10 points a game, including 6 games where their opponent did not score a touchdown. Marshall finished the season with a classic, last-second victory in the MAC title game over Western Michigan to secure their third MAC title before beating BYU in the Motor City Bowl. After their victory over BYU, Marshall secured their 114th win of the 90's and became the winningest team of the 90's.
Heisman finalist Byron Leftwich led Marshall to their 5th MAC title in 6 years. While Marshall's defense struggled through the year as opposed to some previous Herd defenses, their offense put up points and outscored many teams throughout the year. Marshall went 11-2, with losses to Virginia Tech and Akron after Byron Leftwich broke his leg early in the game. After a dramatic win over Ben Roethlisberger's Miami Redhawks for the MAC East title and Leftwich's eventual return, Marshall defeated Toledo in another classic installment of their rivalry for the MAC championship and a GMAC Bowl win over Louisville.
While this season has only reached its halfway point, the current edition of the Marshall Thundering Herd could go down as one of the greatest teams in school history. Quarterback Rakeem Cato, who just tied the record for consecutive games with a passing touchdown, wide receiver Tommy Shuler, and running back Devon Johnson have lead Marshall's offense to over 40 points every game, averaging nearly 48 points per game. If they can keep that pace up, their offense will break their previous record by 3 points per game. On the other side of the ball, Marshall's defense, led by Evan McKelvey, AJ Leggett, and Taj Letman, is giving up only 17.2 points per game. While they might not be able to catch up with the 1999 defense statistically, the numbers might be as, if not more, impressive given the current style of offense played. The new rules of the selection committee, a bid to a January 1 bowl game for a non-power conference team, and a potential for their first conference championship since 2002 could mean this could be one of the most important, and most successful, seasons in Marshall football history.
So, which team do you think is or will go down as the great Marshall football team of all-time?