The Mid-American Conference entered the 21st century as a one-team show. The Marshall Thundering Herd was dominating the conference and had reeled off four consecutive championship game victories. Could the traditional MAC schools wrestle the site of the game away from Huntington, W.V., much less defeat Marshall?
It did not take long to find out.
Year 5 -- 2001
If the Herd dynasty was going to end in 2001, it was news to Marshall. The Herd ran through the MAC with another undefeated 8-0 record and went 10-1 overall during the regular season. Their only loss came in the season's first game, against then-#1 Florida. Marshall won the Eastern Division by two games over Miami (7-5, 6-2).
The Western Division was a great race throughout the season, and the year ended with a three-way tie for the division title. Because of imbalanced scheduling, the division champ was decided by intra-division record, and all three teams (Toledo, Ball State and Northern Illinois) finished 4-1 against Western Division foes. Each of the three teams also went 1-1 versus the other two teams in the tie. Toledo eventually won the tie because they went 1-1 versus the Eastern Division, while the other two teams were 0-2. Toledo went to the MAC Championship Game with an 8-2 overall record, and actually got to host the game!
The game did not begin well for the Rockets. Byron Leftwich threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Denero Marriott just 3:57 into the game to give Marshall an early lead. Less than three minutes later, Leftwich connected with Marriott again, this time from 15 yards out. Marshall continued to pour on the points with a 62-yard run from Franklin Wallace on their next possession, and the Herd held a 20-0 lead after just 8:30 had elapsed from the clock.
Marshall added a 28-yard field goal by Curtis Head on the first play of the second quarter, and Toledo faced the wrong end of a 23-0 deficit. Could they do to Marshall what the Herd had done to the Rockets in 1997 and 1998, by erasing a first-half deficit?
Carl Ford caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Tavares Bolden to start Toledo's effort at a comeback with just 5:35 left in the first half. Todd France kicked a field goal before halftime, and while Toledo went to the locker room down by 13 points, it appeared that the momentum had shifted.
Toledo cut the Marshall lead to just six points early in the second half thanks to a 17-yard touchdown run by Chester Taylor. Things were going to be just fine for the Rockets, right? Wrong. Leftwich threw his third scoring pass to Marriott just 14 seconds after Toledo's score, and the 68-yard bomb allowed Marshall to claim a 29-17 edge.
However, Toledo simply would not go away. Antwan McCray scored on Toledo's next drive to get the Rockets within five points. Then, later in the third, the Rockets drove into Marshall territory only to see their drive stall. Todd France lined up for a field goal -- and faked it! His 16-yard touchdown run right up the middle, followed by a two-point conversion by Bolden, gave Toledo a 32-29 lead! France kicked another field goal for a 35-29 edge before the end of the period.
Marshall reclaimed the lead when Marriott caught his fourth touchdown pass of the night from Leftwich with 11:56 left on the clock, but "one for the thumb" was not meant to be. Taylor ran for his second touchdown of the night with 6:34 remaining, and although the two-point conversion failed, Toledo's defense held from there for a 41-36 victory. The win ended Marshall's streak and provided Toledo with their first conference title since 1995.
Following the title game, the MAC sent multiple teams to bowl games for the first time in league history. Marshall went to the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala. as a consolation prize and defeated East Carolina in an epic 64-61 double-overtime thriller. Toledo earned a spot in the Motor City Bowl, where it capped a 10-2 season with a 23-16 victory over Cincinnati.
Year 6 -- 2002
Those hoping to get d of Marshall would once again be sorely disappointed in 2002. The Thundering Herd went 9-2 in the regular season behind senior Byron Leftwich and captured the MAC's Eastern Division with a 7-1 conference record. Their only blemish was a loss at Akron, who finished 4-8 that year. (WHAT?) Marshall helped their cause immensely with a nationally-televised win over Central Florida, the newest member of the MAC. UCF went on to finish 6-2 in their first season of #MACtion. Marshall also won a key game against Miami in November.
The Western Division was again dominated by Toledo and Northern Illinois. Both teams went through the conference season with just one loss, but Toledo's 7-1 record trumped that of NIU because the Rockets beat the Huskies head-to-head in DeKalb. Toledo preserved their spot in the title game on the final day of the season when it defeated Bowling Green at the Glass Bowl. Had the Falcons won, they (and not Toledo) would have tied NIU at 7-1 for the West crown.
So, for the fourth time in six years, Toledo and Marshall would square off for the MAC Championship. Could the Rockets overcome having to travel to Huntington for a third time?
Say what you want about the dominance of these two teams in the early years of the MAC Championship Game, but you can't argue with the fact that the games themselves were absolute thrillers, and 2002's edition was no exception.
Just as they did in 2001, Marshall quickly jumped out to a two-touchdown lead over Toledo. The Byron Leftwich-to-Denero Marriott connection victimized the Rockets yet again just 3:34 into the game, and Franklin Wallace scored on a one-yard run later in the first quarter to give the Herd a 14-0 lead.
Toledo answered with ten consecutive points in the second quarter on a 37-yard Trinity Dawson run and then a field goal at the midway point of the quarter. However, Marshall pushed right back with two more touchdowns. The second came on a 36-yard fumble return, and the Herd looked to be in complete control with a 28-10 lead.
Much like the previous year, Toledo would not go away. They scored a touchdown to cut Marshall's lead to 28-17 with just 11 seconds left in the first half, then took their first lead of the game at 32-28 on two Dawson runs during the third quarter. Of course, the two teams continued to trade punches as Marshall reclaimed a 35-32 lead on yet another Leftwich-to-Marriott touchdown pass.
The fourth quarter of this game was as good as you'll ever see in the MAC Championship. Dawson scored his fourth touchdown of the game early in the quarter to give Toledo a 39-35 lead. Marshall punched right back with a Leftwich pass to Darius Watts, and that made the score 42-39. The Rockets scored their sixth rushing touchdown of the game and took a 45-42 lead with just 3:24 left on the clock, but the Herd answered again. This time, it took them only 49 seconds to score, and Marshall captured a 49-45 lead on a 40-yard strike from Leftwich to Watts.
Toledo valiantly drove in an effort to win the game, but a pass was broken up in the end zone as time expired to seal the win for Marshall. The disturbing part of this for the Rockets is that they could have sent the game to overtime -- if Todd France had not missed the extra point after Toledo's final touchdown. Had that extra point been successful, Toledo could have tied the game with a field goal on the final drive.
The game's stars were clearly Dawson (for Toledo) with 130 rushing yards and four touchdowns, as well as Leftwich (for Marshall), who had 404 yards passing and another four touchdowns.
Marshall went on to the GMAC Bowl and manhandled Louisville 38-15, while Toledo lost a 51-25 decision to Boston College in the Motor City Bowl.
Year 7 -- 2003
The dynasty is dead! Finally, in its seventh year of existence, the MAC Championship Game could proceed with two teams not named Marshall. And it only took the departure of Byron Leftwich and the presence of perhaps the best quarterback in MAC history to pull it off.
It's not like Marshall dropped off a cliff or anything; they still had a good season and even beat then-#6 Kansas State. However, when the Herd went to Yager Stadium in Oxford, Ohio on November 12th, the baton was officially passed. Ben Roethlisberger led the RedHawks to a 45-6 rout of Marshall on their way to an 8-0 conference record and an 11-1 regular season. Miami's only loss was 21-3 in their first game, versus an Iowa team that ended the year 10-3 and ranked #8 in the country.
On the other side of the field for the MAC Championship were the Western Division champion Bowling Green Falcons. BGSU went 10-2 in the regular season, losing only to Ohio State and Miami, and won the West with a 7-1 record. Their key win of the season was a 34-18 October win at home over...Northern Illinois. Anyone remember that game? Both teams were ranked and ESPN's College Gameday was in attendance that day in Bowling Green. It was the last real game of consequence between the Falcons and Huskies -- until now.
On a frigid night in Bowling Green, dynamic Falcons' quarterback Josh Harris was able to keep the Falcons in the game during the first half, but BGSU was never able to really stop Roethlisberger.
Bowling Green actually took an early 7-0 lead on a 6-yard run by Harris just four minutes into the first quarter. Roethlisberger answered with a touchdown throw on Miami's next drive, but the quarter ended in a 7-7 draw.
The Falcons once again took a lead early in the second quarter when Harris threw a seven-yard touchdown pass for a 14-7 BGSU edge. However, Roethlisberger threw two more touchdown passes of his own during the middle of the quarter, and Miami took the lead for good at 21-14. Shaun Suisham kicked a 42-yard field goal as time in the first half expired to cut the halftime lead to 21-17.
In the third quarter, Miami's offense exerted dominance, while Bowling Green could not answer when they had the ball. Two rushing scores over the third quarter's first ten minutes pushed Miami's lead to 35-17. Following a very meek 29-yard field goal by Suisham, Roethlisberger capped the 21-point quarter with his fourth touchdown pass with just 0:17 left in the frame.
Miami scored another rushing touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter to expand their edge to 49-20, and they cruised after that. Harris threw a touchdown pass to make the final score (49-27) a tiny bit more palatable for the Bowling Green faithful.
Miami set a MAC Championship Game record with 576 yards of total offense, and 440 of those yards came via Roethlisberger's arm. For Bowling Green, Josh Harris accounted for 343 of the team's 402 total yards, as he passed for 260 and rushed for 83 more. Miami became the first (and only) road team to win the MAC Championship Game.
The RedHawks capped their 13-1 season and earned an AP #10 ranking with a 49-28 win over Louisville in the GMAC Bowl. Bowling Green went to Detroit for the Motor City Bowl and pulled off a thrilling 28-24 win over Northwestern. The victory helped the Falcons end the year with ranked #23.
Year 8 -- 2004
Following the frigid 2003 title game, the MAC decided to both move the game to a neutral site and move the game indoors. The new football palace in Detroit, Mich., Ford Field, was selected as the site.
The two division races were very close in 2004. In the East, Miami was in a three-way dance with Akron and Marshall throughout the season but were behind the Herd after losing at Marshall in September. However, even without the NFL-bound Ben Roethlisberger, Miami did not take a step back in the MAC. They won their next six conference games. Marshall later lost back-to-back games to Akron and Bowling Green. So, on the final day of the season, Akron and Miami faced off in the Rubber Bowl, each with 6-1 MAC records, in a winner-take-all game for the East title. Miami walked away with a 37-27 victory and the division title.
In the West, Toledo, Northern Illinois and Bowling Green once again dominated the division. Toledo lost their only conference game of the regular season at Miami, but they followed that with a road win at Northern Illinois and a victory over Bowling Green. Their 7-1 record tied that of NIU, and for the second time in three years, the Rockets won a division tiebreaker with the Huskies thanks to a win in DeKalb. So, it was set -- Toledo versus Miami in the first MAC Championship Game in Detroit.
For the second consecutive year, Miami fell behind early when Bruce Gradkowski threw a touchdown pass for the Rockets with just 4:04 elapsed from the clock. However, the RedHawks answered with a touchdown run and then took the lead at the end of the first quarter when Josh Betts connected on a scoring pass to Michael Larkin. Both defenses then stood firm in the second quarter, and Miami took their 14-7 lead into halftime.
Following the break, defense continued to rule until the Rockets finally put together a drive midway through the third quarter. Gradkowski finally broke the scoring dam with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore to tie the game. The Rockets then took the lead when they intercepted Betts and returned the pick 31 yards for a touchdown. Betts redeemed himself on Miami's next drive with a touchdown throw, but the RedHawks' extra point attempt was blocked. Toledo's big special teams play allowed the Rockets to maintain a 21-20 lead.
Moore caught another touchdown pass from Gradkowski with 22 seconds left in the third quarter, then caught a third with just three minutes gone in the fourth quarter. The 28- and 29-yard scoring passes from Gradkowski gave Toledo a 35-20 lead, and Miami could not answer. Betts was able to cut the lead to eight, 35-27, thanks to a touchdown pass with just four minutes remaining, but Toledo allowed nothing further. The Rockets captured their second MAC title in four years.
Following the game, the MAC sent five different teams to bowls. The conference had previously never sent more than two. Toledo, the MAC champions, lost 39-10 to UConn in the Motor City Bowl. Miami lost to Iowa State, 17-13, in the Independence Bowl. Marshall went to the Fort Worth Bowl and lost to Cincinnati, 32-14. Two MAC teams managed bowl wins -- Northern Illinois defeated Troy 34-21 in the Silicon Valley Football Classic, while Bowling Green outlasted Memphis 52-35 in the GMAC Bowl.
Tomorrow in Part III of our MAC Championship Game History...WHO ARE THESE TEAMS?
- MAC Championship Game History, Part I: The Marshall Years
- "Well, Who Did You Play?" How To Beat the Strength of Schedule Argument
- As Heisman Hopefuls Fall, Jordan Lynch Moves Up In the Race
- Spread Offense: Bowling Green vs. Northern Illinois MAC Championship Game Odds
- Northern Illinois' Head Coach Rod Carey Indicates That Tommylee Lewis Is "Ready To Go"