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Published: Tuesday, 11/27/2001

UT tries to break Herd's stronghold

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Marshall has had a strangehold on the Mid-American Conference championship trophy for the past four seasons.

The Thundering Herd also has had the home-field advantage, winning all four titles at Marshall Stadium in Huntington, W.Va.

Marshall defeated Toledo twice to capture the MAC title - winning 34-14 in 1997 and 23-17 in '98 - and earn the conference's automatic bid to the Motor City Bowl in Pontiac, Mich.

When the two teams meet again Friday in the championship game for the third time in five years, there will be two major differences from previous meetings.

No. 20 Marshall (10-1) and Toledo (8-2) already have secured bowl bids against undetermined opponents - the Thundering Herd is headed to the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., the Rockets to the Motor City Bowl - and the MAC championship game will be played in the Glass Bowl.

For the first time in its five-year history, the title game is being held somewhere other than Huntington - at the site of the West Division winner -while the MAC searches for a permanent site.

That would appear to be good news for Toledo, which has won 13 straight home games dating to 1999.

“We're honored and excited to be part of this championship game,” UT coach Tom Amstutz said yesterday. “We're excited to be the host team. Our team is healthy and ready for the game and we're really looking forward to it. “

UT, which also lost to Marshall 38-13 in Huntington during the regular season in '99, finally got some revenge last year, whipping the Thundering Herd 42-0 at home.

It was the worst MAC defeat for Marshall since a 51-0 whipping at Western Michigan in 1951, and marked the first time the Thundering Herd had been shut out in 151 games. It also tied UT's record for largest margin of victory in a conference game.

“The last time up there, it wasn't very pretty for us,” Marshall coach Bob Pruett said yesterday. “Hopefully we can do a little better.”

Marshall dropped to an uncharacteristic 2-4 after losing to the Rockets a year ago, but the Thundering Herd rebounded to win six of their last seven games, including the MAC championship game and the Motor City Bowl.

Marshall enters this year's title game on a 10-game winning streak after opening the season with a 49-14 loss to Florida, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation.

But the Thundering Herd needed a goal-line stand and a 76-yard interception return in the final minutes Saturday to beat Division I-AA Youngstown State 38-24.

Toledo is coming off a embarrassing 56-21 road loss to rival Bowling Green. The Rockets were without quarterback Tavares Bolden, who is recovering from back spasms but is expected to start against Marshall.

Amstutz, who has promised that “you'll see the real Toledo team this week,” was asked if the Rockets are feeling any added pressure to win because they are hosting the game.

“No, we love to play in our stadium,” he said. “I would say the pressure is going to be on you folks coming in here and visiting us. Our championship games in Huntington, we could feel the intensity of the crowd, and we think that can have a little effect on the game.

“And hopefully we can get the same kind of atmosphere going this Friday.”

Pruett, who has 68 career wins and needs only one more to become the school's all-time winningest coach, insists the MAC championship game still carries plenty of significance, even though Marshall and UT already have wrapped up bowl berths.

Toledo last won a MAC championship in 1995, going 7-0-1, but that was two years before Marshall rejoined the conference and divisional play began.

“Our primary goal every year is to win the conference championship, and anything after that is gravy,” Pruett said. “The conference championship is the key thing, and what we point for. And I'm sure it's the same at Toledo.”

QUICK HITS: A crowd of more than 20,000 is expected for the MAC championship game, but there's a good chance the Glass Bowl (official seating capacity is listed as 26,248) may not be sold out for the nationally televised game on ESPN. Marshall requested 6,000 tickets and must sell at least 2,500. Through Sunday 6,000 tickets have been sold at UT. Tickets are $16 for reserved seats and $11 for general admission. ... In each of the three years the Rockets have played in the title game, they lost their final regular-season game. In '97 the Rockets lost to Central Florida (34-17); in '98 they lost to Eastern Michigan (10-7); and last Friday they lost to Bowling Green on the road. ... Officials working the championship game better bring along some extra flags. Each team has been penalized a MAC-leading 89 times. ... Marshall receiver Denero Marriott suffered a slight concussion in the first half against Youngstown State and is questionable for Friday's game. ... Pruett does expect to have leading rusher Franklin Wallace (sprained ankle) back for the game. Wallace sat out last week's game and was replaced by Brandon Carey, who rushed for 104 yards on 20 carries. ... Marshall is ranked No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.



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