This one was going way too easily, Don Nehlen thought to himself. He certainly had the better team, but Division I-A newcomer Marshall had the best player on the field – wide receiver Randy Moss.
West Virginia found out just how good Moss was after the Mountaineers took a 28-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Moss caught two touchdown passes, the second one a 25-yarder early in the fourth quarter to put the Thundering Herd ahead, 31-28. Moss finished the afternoon with seven catches for 85 yards, while also returning a kick for 49 yards. He extended his streak of catching at least one touchdown pass to 16 games.
LaVorn Colclough also caught a TD pass against West Virginia’s shaky secondary, while running back Llow Turner ripped off a 54-yard touchdown run and finished the game with 106 yards on only eight carries.
West Virginia, a 17-point favorite, needed a Marc Bulger-to-Chad Wable 15-yard touchdown pass with 11:07 remaining in the game to retake the lead. Wable’s score was set up by Nate Terry’s interception at the Marshall 26.
A second Terry interception on Marshall’s next possession at the Herd 35 made it possible for Amos Zereoue to score an insurance touchdown with 7:56 to go.
West Virginia and Marshall were playing for the first time in 74 years. The last time the two teams met in Morgantown in 1923, West Virginia beat the Thundering Herd 81-0. Before that, the Mountaineers won 92-6 in a game played in Huntington in 1915.
Of course, Marshall had waited a long time for an opportunity at redemption.
“We showed everybody what Marshall is all about,” said Colclough after the game.
Thundering Herd coach Bob Pruett, who campaigned endlessly to play the game – sometimes to the point of taunting his northern counterparts, said his team showed it could compete with top Division I programs.
“We’ve been Division I for three weeks now,” said Pruett. “I think we saw good things today. We’ll just have to work on our tackling, and our turnovers, and I think we’ll be all right.
“I think we might be a little further along than some people thought – at least the point spread people,” the coach added.
Nehlen was more relieved than he was happy to see his team begin the 1997 season 1-0.
“I’ve never seen so much hype for a football game before,” Nehlen said. “It was a good game for the players, but a much better game for the crowd.”
The attendance was announced at 65,492.
“We went from an excitable football team to a team that was just like, ‘uhh,’” Nehlen said. “The first quarter, we came out and played strong on both sides. In the second half, we didn’t have it at all.”
Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington finished the game 19 of 48 passing for 266 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions. Bulger, making his first career start for West Virginia, was 11 of 22 through the air for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Amos Zereoue led all ball carriers with 174 yards and three touchdowns.