Not too many programs have a history as diverse as Marshall’s. Herd fans can recite tales equal parts tragedy and triumph. They can also offer memories of some truly outstanding players such as Chad Pennington, Randy Moss, Byron Leftwich, and Ahmad Bradshaw.
This slideshow is more of a trip down memory lane than a preview of Thursday’s game, but it’s a stroll worth taking. An educated college football fan knows plenty about the Thundering Herd, but the average fan may not.
On November 14th, 1970, Marshall lost a close game to East Carolina by the score of 17-14. After the contest, players, coaches, team personnel, and others associated with the Thundering Herd football program boarded a DC-9 plane headed back home to Marshall.
They never made it back.
Their plane crashed into a small hill during a rainstorm about a mile west of the Tri-State Airport in Huntington, West Virginia. All 75 people on board died.
As the community mourned, the University decided against discontinuing the football program and eventually Jack Lengyel was hired as head coach. The tragedy was portrayed in the 2006 film We Are Marshall, with Matthew McConaughey playing Lengyel.
Following taking the Marshall job Lengyel’s biggest challenge was finding players. The NCAA allowed the Herd to make freshman eligible and by the start of the season their roster was mostly made up of a rag-tag group of walk-ons, freshman, ex-servicemen and even three basketball players.
In their first home game of the season on Sept. 25, 1971, Marshall took on Xavier. Trailing 13-9 with less than two minutes to go, quarterback Reggie Oliver calmly took the Herd down the field. Oliver converted a key fourth down pass on the drive and eventually threw a game-winner to freshman Terry Gardner as time expired to give Marshall the 15-13 victory.
Countless fans, many of whom lost a loved one or knew someone who perished in the crash, remained in the stands for over an hour after the game ended was over, weeping and hugging one another.
90-plus wins and nearly 60 conference victories in nine years as head coach is a claim to fame of Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel. But it’s also true of former Herd coach Bob Pruett.
From the mid-'90s until the first half of the 2000s, Marshall football enjoyed tremendous success under a man who not only knew how to push his players’ buttons, but was known to rock a sweater vest, the choice attire of one Senator Tressel.
The numbers through nine years at their respective colleges are eerily similar. Tressel has a 94-21 record, Pruett was 94-23. Tressel boasts a conference record of 59-13. Pruett went 59-11. Tressel won a national championship in his second year. Pruett picked up a I-AA championship in his first year as head of the Herd.
Quick, name the program with the most wins during the 1990s. Not Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, or any other big name college powerhouse.
With 114 wins from 1990-1999, Marshall racked up more wins during the '90s than any other college football team in D-1A or I-AA. That’s also more wins by a team in any decade ever.
During this time, the Thundering Herd were I-AA champions twice, once in 1992 and also in 1996, when they went undefeated and won every game by at least two touchdowns.
In 1997, Marshall joined D-1A and the Mid-American Conference. And boy, did they ever fit in with the big boys.
Led by quarterback Chad Pennington and wide receiver Randy Moss, Marshall thundered to 10 wins and a league title.
Pennington, who would lead Marshall to the school’s first bowl victory in 1998, majored in journalism, broadcast for the student radio station (under a pseudonym), and was a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship. But it was his partner in crime that caught most of the headlines, and rightfully so.
After originally signing a letter of intent to play at Notre Dame and redshirting the 1995 college football season at Florida State, Randy Moss ended up playing his college ball at Marshall, about an hour away from his hometown of Rand, West Virginia.
In 1997, he hauled in 96 passes for 1,820 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Moss’ two-year totals at Marshall came to 174 catches, 3,529 receiving yards and 54 touchdowns. He also had four 200-yard receiving games.
Moss won the Fred Biletnikoff Trophy, given to the nation’s top wide receiver, and was fourth in the Heisman trophy voting.
Out with former Ohio State defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, in with 52-year-old Doc Holliday.
Holliday, who has 31 years of collegiate coaching experience and is also known as an ace recruiter, was most recently associate head coach at West Virginia, where he also was a three-year letter-winner at linebacker from 1976-78. He also served as director of recruiting and tight ends and full backs coach for the Mountaineers.
Holliday boasts 45 letter-winners and 13 starters coming back for the Green and White.
After seeing action in five games in 2007 and six in 2008, redshirt senior quarterback Brian Anderson started all 13 games for the Thundering Herd last season, leading them to a 7-6 mark.
While his overall numbers of 2,646 yards, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions are not extraordinary by any measure, he does provide stability to an offense that has a new coordinator.
The Herd also lost leading rusher Darius Marshall, the right side of their offensive line, and tight end Cody Slate, MU’s all-time leader in catches for a tight end. So, the onus is on Anderson to make his last year a memorable one.
The strength of the Herd defense is clear: linebacker Mario Harvey.
A 2009 first-team All-Conference USA selection, Harvey recorded 117 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season. In Marshall’s 21-17 Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl win over Ohio, Harvey had 12 tackles and two sacks, a performance that would make any great Buckeye linebacker proud.
Harvey is a preseason All-Conference USA pick as well as a nominee for the Nagurski Trophy and the Lombardi Award.
The six-foot, 247-pound linebacker also reportedly ran a 4.35 40-yard dash this summer, good for second-fastest on the team.
In conclusion, the Marshall football program has had its ups and downs over the course of its existence. This year’s team will certainly make some noise in Conference USA and may better its 7-6 record from 2009.
But they aren’t winning Thursday night.
The Bucks are too talented, too focused and too deep for the Thundering Herd to keep up past the first quarter and a half. Ohio State won’t overlook Marshall the way they were caught peeking past Navy in last season’s opener.
Expect the Bucks to win by at least three touchdowns.