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HomeSportsUT
Published: Saturday, 12/7/2002

MAC elite: Toledo, Marshall

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The University of Toledo rallied from a 23-0 deficit to stun four-time champion Marshall 41-36 in last year's Mid-American Conference championship game in the Glass Bowl.

Since then the Thundering Herd's motto has been, “Take back the MAC.”

“It was an embarrassment last year,” Marshall offensive tackle Steve Sciullo said.

“Your wins last a week, your losses last for a lifetime,” Marshall coach Bob Pruett said. “That's just how football is. It sticks with you.”

Today will mark the fourth time in six years that Toledo (9-3) and Marshall (9-2) have squared off in the MAC championship game.

And this will be the third matchup between the two teams at Marshall Stadium, where the Thundering Herd has a 48-1 record since 1996, including a 4-0 mark in title games.

Marshall defeated UT 34-14 for the championship on its home field in 1997 as Chad Pennington threw three touchdown passes to Randy Moss, then followed up that with a 23-17 victory over the Rockets in 1998.

“We want to win this game more than any other game this year,” Toledo quarterback Brian Jones said. “This is for the championship. We want another ring. We want to dominate.”

Marshall and Toledo, which already have accepted bowl bids, have been two of the MAC's most successful teams in recent years.

Since making the move from NCAA Division I-AA to I-A in 1997, the Thundering Herd has posted the top overall record in college football - 63-13, a winning percentage of .829. Ironically, the Rockets have the same winning percentage the last three seasons. Their 29-6 mark during that stretch is third-best among major colleges.

Pruett said he's not surprised that Toledo won its last four games to earn a share of its fifth West Division title in six years. Marshall has captured six straight East crowns.

“I told the people around here four weeks ago Toledo would be the team that would be down here to play us,” Pruett said. “I think [coach Tom Amstutz] does a great job. Their whole coaching staff does a great job. Their players play hard.

“One of the most remarkable things about Toledo and Marshall - and I think we both fall into this category - is the ability of both programs to stay consistent and play at a championship level over a period of time.

“If Toledo hasn't been in the championship game, they've been playing for the championship. The year they were 10-1 [2000], it may have been one of their better football teams. They didn't get in, but they were right there playing for the title. They've done a good job. I think Toledo and Marshall are very similar in that respect.”

Amstutz was evasive when asked if UT's program is catching up to Marshall's.

“I just feel we have good tradition and we've worked our way back to the top and now we have another opportunity to be in championship game,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to have done that. Marshall has an excellent football team. They're in a class by themselves.”

Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich, 0-2 lifetime against the Rockets but 21-5 against the rest of the MAC, has been hobbled in recent weeks by a bruised left shin. However, he turned in a Heisman-Trophy-like performance last week against Ball State, completing 35 of 42 passes for 401 yards and two touchdowns.

On the other side is Jones, an unheralded left-hander who had the best season of any offensive player in the conference this year.

He has completed more than 65 percent of his passes in 11 of 12 games. He leads the country in pass completion percentage (71.4) and ranks second in passing efficiency (158.2). He needs just 62 yards passing today to break Chris Wallace's single-season school record of 2,955 yards, set in 1997.

Jones has thrown 21 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. Eighteen of those scoring passes have come in the last eight games, and he has thrown for 300 yards or more four times during that stretch.

“He's an outstanding playmaker,” Pruett said. “He runs that system perfectly and I think he does a great job with it. He's one of the reasons they are in the position they're in right now. He's as good as anybody in the league.”

Toledo's offense averages 35.4 points and 478.3 yards per game, compared to Marshall's 33.6 points and 512.8 yards.

“I think it's going to be a shootout,” Jones said.



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