HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - It was deathly silent. If a pin had dropped, it would have sounded like a giant oak crashing down. A hush had fallen over the land.
Marshall, the colossus of the Mid-American Conference, was taken in its own lair - losing at home for only the second time in 52 games over the last eight seasons. The University of Toledo stunned the Thundering Herd 24-17 last night and sent 31,511 home in silence.
The two teams had gone toe-to-toe in the last couple of MAC Championship games, and split a pair of wild shoot-outs. This one came down to the 11th hour as well, and the Rockets won it by driving 57 yards in 11 plays and scoring the decisive touchdown with 1:10 left in the game.
“Everybody realized it was critical, that it might be our last chance,” sophomore running back Trinity Dawson said. “The offensive line was great in that final drive, and the defense got after it and gave us a chance to win.”
The Toledo defense stopped a Marshall possession with just under nine minutes left in a 17-17 game when Brandon Hefflin intercepted a tipped ball deep in Rocket territory. The Thundering Herd turned it over again with under seven minutes to play when UT's Patrick Body hit Butchie Wallace, knocking the ball loose, and Paul Dye recovered for Toledo near midfield.
Staying almost exclusively on the ground, the Rockets drove a stake through Marshall's heart by just pounding away and burning up the clock. Sophomore quarterback Bruce Gradkowski picked up three yards on a critical fourth-and-one at the Marshall 34, and Astin Martin went in for the winning score from 10 yards out four plays later.
“We faced adversity throughout the game,” Gradkowski said, “but we realized that when you play at a place like this, you have to limit your mistakes and battle every play. Every year it's a shootout, but when it really counted, the defense stopped them and we put it in the endzone.”
After UT took the lead, Marshall put together a frantic push towards the endzone that ended when Body intercepted a Marshall pass at the UT 11. The Thundering Herd lost at home for the first time since Oct. 5, 2000.
Marshall had a 3-0 lead just over five minutes into the game on a Ben Lewis 38-yard field goal. The drive was kept alive by a late pass interference call on a third down play from the Marshall 39. The Herd next drove 80 yards for a touchdown on a seven yard Earl Charles run and a 10-0 lead, aided by two major penalties on the Rockets.
Toledo was moving the ball when the first quarter ended, making seven consecutive gains. But the Rockets were stopped short on a fourth and the length of a Snickers bar at the Marshall 11.
“We had to match their enthusiasm,” UT head coach Tom Amstutz said. “Obviously, when you come to Marshall it is tough to come away with a win. They step on this field expecting to win.”
Toledo's Robert Menefee recovered a Herd fumble early in the second quarter, putting UT in motion from the Marshall 41. On second down, Gradkowski hit a leaping Terrance Hudson at the 14, and Hudson spun away from the Marshall defenders for a 39-yard touchdown. Jason Robbins kicked the point and UT trailed 10-7 with just under 12 minutes left in the half.
Before the half ended, UT stopped Marshall on a fourth-and-one from the eight as Body slipped through and hit Butchie Wallace for no gain. UT missed out on a couple of potential scoring opportunities before he half ended with Robbins well short on a 45-yard field goal try.
Toledo took the lead to open the second half, driving 63 yards in six plays after a 40-yard kickoff return by Moore. Dawson carried for 27 yards on three carries, and Gradkowski hit Moore for 21 yards before he found Andrew Clarke with a 14-yard scoring pass. Robbins kicked the point for a 14-10 UT advantage.
Toledo dodged a couple of bullets in the third quarter as Charles fumbled the ball away after taking a big hit from Chaz Williams at the Toledo 12 and Brock Dodrill recovered. A bit later, Gradkowski recovered his own fumble deep in UT territory after Marshall had the first grab at it.
“It was just back and forth,” Gradkowski said, “and we realized Marshall was not giving up. We had to make the plays when it really counted.”
The Herd then took the lead 17-14 as Graham Gochneaur threw 22 yards over the middle to a wide open Watts. Toledo came back and tied it at 17-17 before the third quarter ended on a 37-yard field goal by Robbins, which tied his career longest.
In six-plus seasons in the MAC, only once before has a team bus left Huntington free to blast its horn in celebration. Last night the horn was heard again.38.41983 -82.44537
It was deathly silent. If a pin had dropped, it would have sounded like a giant oak crashing down. A hush had fallen over the land. Marshall, the colossus of the Mid-American Conference, was taken in its own lair - losing at home for only the second time in 52 games over the last eight seasons.