The MAC Championship Game made its debut in the 1997 season, when Marshall and Northern Illinois made their triumphant return to the Mid-American Conference. Marshall had not been part of the league since 1968, while NIU was making their return after departing following the 1985 season. The infusion of new (old?) blood gave the MAC 12 teams, which allowed it to split into divisions and hold a championship game.
This was back when conference championship games were still a relative novelty. The concept had only begun five years prior.
Year 1 -- 1997
Marshall came back to the MAC after finally returning to dominance for the first time since the infamous 1970 plane crash. The Thundering Herd had went 15-0 in 1996 and were defending I-AA national champions. Northern Illinois was almost the polar opposite. They returned to the MAC following a 1-10 season as a Division I-A independent.
Marshall wasted no time in turning the MAC into their own personal playground. The Thundering Herd went 7-1 in their debut season and won the Eastern Division by one game over Miami and Ohio. Their opponents in the inaugural MAC Championship Game would be the Toledo Rockets, who also went 7-1 in the MAC to capture the Western Division crown by a game over Western Michigan.
The two met at Marshall's home stadium in Huntington, W.V., and for a while, it appeared as if Toledo might pull the upset. The Rockets were able to contain the fantastic Chad Pennington-to-Randy Moss combo early and led 7-3 at halftime. Chris Wallace threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Ray Curry for the Rockets' lead. That lead held until there were less than seven minutes left in the third quarter. At that point, Pennington and Moss finally broke through, when Moss caught a four-yard TD pass for a 10-7 lead.
Then, the floodgates opened. Three minutes after the first touchdown, Moss hauled in an 86-yard touchdown reception for a 17-7 lead. After a Marshall field goal early in the fourth, Moss caught his third scoring pass of the night with 7:01 to play, as Marshall built an insurmountable 27-7 lead. A touchdown run less than a minute later made it 34-7, before Wallace threw another touchdown pass for Toledo to close the scoring. Moss ended the game with seven catches for 170 yards.
The loss ended the season for Toledo. Marshall went on to lose the first Motor City Bowl, 34-31 against Mississippi.
Year 2 -- 1998
Somehow, Marshall had an even better year in 1998. The Thundering Herd blasted through the regular season with a 10-1 record. Their only blemish was a 34-13 loss at Bowling Green. Due to their 31-17 win over Miami, they won a tiebreaker with the RedHawks for the Eastern Division crown with a 7-1 conference record. Toledo won the right for a rematch with Marshall by rolling to a 6-2 conference mark and the Western Division title.
The game was once again held in Huntington, W.V., but there would be no blowout this time. Marshall opened the scoring in the first quarter on a touchdown run by Chris Hanson on a fake field goal. Toledo answered right back later in the quarter with a one-yard scoring run by Wasean Tait. The two teams managed nothing in the second quarter, and for the second consecutive year, Toledo led at halftime.
Neither team managed a point in the third quarter, and a Todd France field goal just 20 seconds into the fourth quarter gave Toledo a late 10-6 lead. Chad Pennington drove Marshall quickly down the field with an answer and his 19-yard touchdown pass to Nate Poole gave Marshall a 13-10 lead. Just two minutes later, Toledo gave up a costly fumble that was returned 21 yards for a touchdown, and Marshall had a 10-point edge at 20-10. A field goal later made the score 23-10 before Toledo scored their final points on a Chris Wallace-to-Mike Bilik touchdown pass with just over a minute to play.
Wallace threw for 337 yards in the game but was intercepted twice. Pennington overcame a third quarter injury to throw for 249 yards.
Marshall later capped off their 12-1 season by beating Louisville in the Motor City Bowl, 48-29.
Year 3 -- 1999
If it was unlikely that Marshall's 1998 could be better than their 1997, it was even less so that 1999 would be even better than 1998. Well, it was. Marshall put together one of their greatest seasons and never lost a single game. They opened the season with a victory at Clemson, then went 8-0 in the MAC to win the Eastern Division. None of their eight conference wins were by fewer than 12 points. By the time the MAC Championship Game took place, Marshall was 11-0 and ranked 11th in the Associated Press poll. In the West, Toledo took a step back and finished just 5-3 in MAC play. Supplanting the Rockets were the Western Michigan Broncos. WMU went 7-4 during the regular season, including six wins in eight tries during MAC play.
However, one of those two conference losses came at the hands of Marshall, 31-17, in Kalamazoo, Mich. just 20 days prior.
Western Michigan did not let the earlier loss faze them, and for the third straight year, Marshall fell behind early at home. In fact, WMU absolutely dominated the first two and a half quarters. The Broncos got first half touchdowns on a Tim Lester-to-Corey Aldon 16-yard pass and a 1-yard Robert Sanford run. They also were helped by three Brad Selent field goals, and with just 23 minutes of football remaining, Western Michigan held a 23-0 lead.
However, Chad Pennington, in his third MAC Championship Game, would not be denied. He threw two touchdown passes in the final six minutes of the third quarter, with a 38-yarder going to Nate Poole and a 16-yarder going to James Williams. He also led Marshall on a third touchdown drive in the quarter, which was capped by a 24-yard Doug Chapman scoring run. Chapman scored again just 2:24 into the fourth quarter, and amazingly, Marshall had scored 27 straight points with just 8:20 coming off the game clock.
Marshall's 27-23 lead lasted only a few minutes, as Lester led the Broncos downfield for another touchdown pass and a 30-27 edge. Would Marshall be upset? Nope. Pennington, with ice water in his veins, led Marshall to the WMU 1-yard line with four seconds left on the clock. He then threw a touchdown pass to Eric Pinkerton for the winning score in a 34-30 victory.
WMU actually outgained Marshall 453-398 in the game, but two interceptions were costly. Sanford set a title game record with 163 yards rushing.
Marshall finished their undefeated 13-0 season with an impressive 21-3 win over #25 BYU in the Motor City Bowl. The Thundering Herd were ranked #10 in the final AP poll of the season.
Year 4 -- 2000
Finally, in their fourth year in the MAC, Marshall took a step back. The Thundering Herd went just 6-5 in the regular season. After taking non-conference losses to Michigan State and North Carolina, Marshall won their MAC opener against Buffalo. They followed that with back-to-back losses to Western Michigan and Toledo by scores of 30-10 and 42-0. Marshall righted the ship and won four straight, but then lost to Ohio to close the regular season.
Marshall finished the year tied with Akron, Ohio and Miami for first in the Eastern Division with 5-3 records. Marshall and Akron separated themselves with 5-1 division records (Ohio and Miami were 4-2), then Marshall got the championship game spot due to a 31-28 win over Akron.
The Western Division came down to Western Michigan and Toledo once again. Toledo had a fantastic season and lost only one game while earning non-conference victories over Penn State and Navy. Unfortunately, their one loss was to the wrong team -- Western Michigan (21-14), and WMU advanced to their second straight title game with a 7-1 conference record.
Marshall won their fourth consecutive MAC Championship Game with a thrilling comeback win over Western Michigan. For the first time in the four-year streak, Marshall held the lead at halftime. J.R. Jenkins kicked two field goals, and the Herd led 6-0 with under two minutes to go in the first half. Finally, first-year starter Byron Leftwich led Marshall on a touchdown drive and scored on a 44-yard pass to Darius Watts with 1:37 left on the clock.
Western Michigan was held scoreless until just before the end of the third quarter, when Jeff Welsh connected with Steve Neal for a 22-yard touchdown pass. Josh Bush caught a 41-yard laser from Welsh on the Broncos' next drive, and WMU had a 14-13 lead with 12:52 remaining.
Still, Marshall simply would not be denied on their home turf. With 6:14 left in the game, Leftwich threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to John Cooper to reclaim the lead. Marshall failed on the two-point conversion attempt but led 19-14. Western Michigan had two chances to win the game but failed on both. The first drive stalled in Marshall territory, and Welsh had his final pass of the game intercepted with 1:21 on the clock.
Leftwich threw for 358 yards in his MAC title game debut, while Welsh (also a first-year starter) accounted for 264 yards.
Marshall ended their season on a successful note with a 25-14 win over Cincinnati at the 2000 Motor City Bowl. They finished with an 8-5 record.
UP NEXT: 2001-2004 -- THE MARSHALL DYNASTY ENDS (ALSO: HELLO, DETROIT!)