"I don't know what it is about us against 1-AA teams," Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich said. "We just never play well against those guys."
It was a '90s flashback that most Marshall fans would care to forget. Youngstown State drew first blood in the game, relying on a rock-solid running attack to move the ball upfield and into the endzone early. After forcing Marshall to go three-and-out on their first possession, YSU running back P.J. Mays took the reigns and ran the Penguins upfield on YSU's first possession. 5 plays and 68 yards later, Mays ran into the endzone untouched from 10 yards out, and YSU jumped out to the early lead, 7-0.
It would be more than 11 minutes later before the Marshall offense would have an answer for the score. With only :22 remaining in the first quarter, MU quarterback Byron Leftwich found receiver Darius Watts in the back of the end zone, and zipped in the 11-yard heater for Marshall's first score.
In the second quarter, Marshall moved the ball downfield on an 8-play, 14-yard drive that would end with a Curtis Head 20-yard field goal to put the Herd up, 10-7. YSU had an answer for that one, too, as P.J. Mays again ran the ball downfield slowly, steadily on the next possession. A 14-play, 73-yard drive ended with Mays again finding paydirt, this time from two yards out. YSU 14, MU 10.
"First of all, Youngstown's pretty good," Marshall coach Bob Pruett said. "Their kids played hard. We weren't as ready to play as I think we'll be next week. Didn't play with much emotion at all in the first quarter."
Marshall took the lead back late in the second quarter, when receiver Curtis Jones went across the middle and hauled in Leftwich's pass with 2:58 left for the score. The Herd took the 17-14 lead into the halftime, wondering just how YSU was still in the game.
The answer, of course, was YSU's stellar rushing attack.
In the second half, P.J. Mays struck the MU defense again on YSU's first possession. Ending a 9-play, 75-yard opening drive, Mays waltzed into the endzone for a third time in the game, putting YSU up 21-17. Marshall suddenly found themselves sinking at home. YSU's Jake Stewart added a 39-yard field goal at the 6:00 mark, and YSU extended their lead to 24-17.
YSU kick returner (and TE) John Schumacher (85) had his helmet removed on this kick return by Marshall's Kevin Atkins, Trod Buggs, and Chris Massey.
However, just when you thought the unimaginable was going to happen, Marshall rallied back. Reeling off 21 unanswered points in three different scoring situations (run, pass, and interception return), the Herd safely put the Penguins away once and for all. First up was Brandon Carey's 2-yard run with 1:49 left in the third. Carey took the ball and did the up-and-over leap into the endzone, knotting the score at 24-24. On the Herd's first possession of the fourth, receiver Josh Davis caught a 14-yard Leftwich pass to put Marshall back in the slimmest of leads (7 points) at 31-24.
Then, MU defensive back Roberto Terrell blew the place up. With YSU driving toward the Marshall end zone for a potential game-tying score with less than a minute to go, Terrell dropped back in pass coverage and broke early on YSU quarterback Jeff Ryan's pass over the middle. Terrell picked off the pass and took off like a missile.
76 yards later Roberto Terrell ran into the endzone, only :11 remaining on the clock, to seal the too-close-for-comfort win for Marshall, 38-24.
"We did a great job of finding a way to win," Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich found himself saying after the game. "Even though we only won by 14, we found a way to win."
YSU capitalized on a lackluster Marshall defensive performance, with the Penguins' P.J. Mays running for an amazing 202 yards, and the YSU offense running up an even more impressive 392 yards on the ground. With a running attack like that, YSU will go far in the 1-AA playoffs, it is safe to assume.
Marshall's offense, on the other hand, cranked out the points when needed and nothing more in the 38-24 win. Hampered by constant rain and slick turf, the Herd offense managed to crank off 'only' 379 total yards against YSU -171 on the ground, 202 in the air. Brandon Carey rushed for a career-high 104 yards on 20 carries and one TD. Receiver Josh Davis hauled in 8 catches for 82 yards, 1 TD, while Curtis Jones caught 4 passes for 39 yards, one TD.
"Sometimes, when you win 10 ballgames, 11 ballgames, 12 ballgames, you've got to have luck every now and then," Marshall coach Bob Pruett summed up. "Sometimes, you've got to win when you don't play at your best."
Escaping with the win, Marshall now improves to 10-1 overall and faces a short week as they face MAC West champs the Toledo Rockets in the MAC Championship game next Friday night at Toledo. Youngstown State drops to 8-3 overall with the loss.