The First Season
Returning to the Mid-American Conference three decades after leaving the league in 1969, Pruett had his team ready from the outset, and turned to redshirt sophomore Chad Pennington as the linchpin in the Herd’s dominant transition to a higher division.
After losing to Montana 22-20 in his true freshman season and earning Southern Conference freshman of the year honors in 1995, Pruett had redshirted Pennington in favor of Florida transfer Eric Kresser, the move paying off with a national championship and another year of eligibility at the I-A level. That year would prove pivotal, a prescient maneuver by Pruett as he guided Marshall to immediate and unexpected success in the MAC.
Pennington would finally get to team up with Randy Moss. The enigmatic receiver had transferred to Huntington the previous season after running afoul of the law during his time at Florida State. In 1996 he broke or tied Jerry Rice’s I-AA records for touchdowns, consecutive games with a touchdown, and receiving yards by a freshman en route to the undefeated championship. But it had been Kresser throwing those go routes to Moss, and Pennington made the most of his only opportunity to pair with the 6’4” receiver.
The defense couldn’t stop West Virginia’s offense in the 1997 season opener, the more established in-state rival Mountaineers giving the Thundering Herd a rude welcome to the I-A level. Marshall wouldn’t be obliterated, though, as the offense put up 31 points on West Virginia and led the game 31-28 with 12 minutes remaining. Moss had two touchdown catches and 85 receiving yards, and the Herd put up 381 total offensive yards – more than 160 yards above the Mountaineer average from the prior season, when West Virginia had led the nation in fewest yards allowed per game.
The following week they handily dealt with Army 35-25 at West Point and proceeded to win their first three conference games as a new MAC member by an average score of 45-17. Marshall was brought back down to earth, though, when they traveled to Oxford, Ohio to face the Miami RedHawks. Up against a new divisional rival also in the hunt for the conference championship, Marshall was held in check throughout most of the 45-21 beatdown before 29,027 fans at Yager Stadium.
Playing four of their final five at home – including the MAC Championship, a 34-14 victory over West Division winner Toledo – Marshall became the first team in I-A history to win ten games in its first season after promotion from the I-AA ranks. Matched against Ole Miss in the inaugural Motor City Bowl on Boxing Day 1997, the Thundering Herd led 17-7 at halftime before a second-half Rebels surge gave the SEC squad a narrow 34-31 victory.
How Have They Fared Since?
Quickly acclimating to the I-A ranks, the Thundering Herd would notch at least ten wins in five of their first six seasons in the MAC. Experiencing no sophomore slump, Marshall improved to 12-1 in 1998, their only loss coming at Bowling Green on Halloween. Winning a second consecutive MAC championship over Toledo, the Herd then earned the first bowl victory in school history with a 48-29 thrashing of Louisville in the Motor City Bowl.
1999 would be the year of the snub, as Marshall swept through their schedule. Opening the year with a 13-10 win at Clemson, the Thundering Herd entered the polls two weeks later and moved as high as 12th in the BCS rankings before being passed over for a slot in one of the four most lucrative bowls on the calendar. Settling for a third straight trip to Detroit, Marshall crushed BYU 21-3 to take their second straight Motor City Bowl while wondering what might have transpired in Tempe or Miami or New Orleans or Pasadena had they been accepted to the party.
After the undefeated season, Marshall slumped to 8-5 but still won their fourth straight conference championship. Though they would improve to 11-2 in both 2001 and 2002, the Herd would finally fall to Toledo in a MAC championship game in 2001 before reclaiming their crown in a 49-45 thriller in 2002. Marshall would extend their bowl winning streak to five games with wins over Cincinnati in 2000, East Carolina in 2001 and Louisville in 2002.
2003 begat another eight-win season, and it would be the first time since entering the I-A ranks that Marshall would fail to garner a postseason bid. They would return to the postseason in 2004, a 32-14 beatdown administered in the Fort Worth Bowl by Cincinnati providing the conclusion to a 6-6 season for the Herd. It would be their last year in the MAC, as Conference USA came a-courtin’ and siphoned off the West Virginians.
It would also be the end to a run of dominance that Marshall sustained for its MAC tenure. As the school departed its original league and said goodbye to head coach Pruett, they slumped into mediocrity under Mark Snyder and his successors. Against new competition in their new league, the Herd stumbled to four straight losing seasons from 2005 to 2008. They would return to the postseason in 2009, a 6-6 season rewarded with a trip to Detroit for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Squaring off against former MAC rival Ohio, the Herd survived a second-half comeback bid from the Bobcats to win 21-17.
From their early promise as a team positioned to bust the BCS to a mediocre C-USA program, the Thundering Herd showed that a I-AA powerhouse could compete immediately at the I-A level upon entering the top division in 1997. But a decade later, their early run of dominance had given way to difficulties in sustaining and building upon success that were precipitated by a coaching change and a conference realignment.