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MAC showdown expects sequel

The Associated Press

The Marshall at Western Michigan game Saturday doesn’t make for grand theater.

Friday, November 12, 1999

The Marshall at Western Michigan game Saturday doesn’t make for grand theater. A showdown that likely will have a sequel, it’s the game of the year in the Mid-American Conference that later could all but be forgotten.

”The uniqueness of it is it’s a hugely important game as far as who you’re playing and the scope it represents in the national standings and all of that sort of a thing,” Western coach Gary Darnell said.

Then he added, ”But we all know that what’s really important is that next one.”

The ”next one” is the anticipated rematch in the MAC title game Dec. 3. Western (7-2) has already clinched the West Division title with its 6-0 record. That means the Broncos are also assured of playing in the MAC title game.

Marshall (9-0), ranked 12th in the nation this week and one of only five Division I-A unbeatens, needs to beat either Western or Ohio in its final two regular-season games to lock up the other title-game berth as the East Division champ.

Marshall coach Bob Pruett admits his team has a lot more at stake.

”See, we need to win the game to win the Eastern Division championship. We need to win the game to have a chance to get into the Bowl Championship Series. We need to win the game to keep our national ranking,” he said. ”Then again, Gary’s been building his program there for three years, so to come in and beat a nationally ranked team – it’s a very big game for both programs. It’s about respect.”

The setting is special. Marshall, of course, was one of the premier Division I-AA programs before jumping to the big leagues three years ago. Since then, the Thundering Herd has gone 31-4, sent the mercurial Randy Moss to the NFL and hogged the spotlight from everybody else in the MAC.

In other words, the Herd is used to playing in games just like this one.

”It’s fun, but we’re fortunate,” Pruett said. ”For the four years I’ve been here, we’ve had this type attention and this type of pressure. … So I don’t know, it’s great, but I think our kids are sort of used to that now. We’ve been on national TV. If this was a first for us …”

Meanwhile, the contest has taken on epic proportions in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Darnell said he has been told it’s the biggest game in the city since Merlin Olsen came in with Utah State in the early 1960s.

”We’re fixing to hit Broadway this week. That’s how I classify Division I teams, is Broadway and off-Broadway. Well, this is Broadway this week,” Darnell said. ”When you’re going on national TV, with two different networks in here, Fox and ESPN both doing the game, and you’ve got a stadium that holds 30,000 and they’re expecting 35,000 to 40,000. Well, it’s obvious this is a little different.”

Most observers see the game as a showdown of a different sort, a duel between stellar quarterbacks Chad Pennington of Marshall and Tim Lester of Western.

”I think Lester’s awful hard to contain and I think our guy’s a pretty good guy, too,” Pruett said. But he and Darnell agree that even with all the firepower the teams have, the offenses might balance each other out and the game will likely swing on the play of the defenses.

But, again, it’s been a difficult game to grasp, at least for Western.

Sure, the Broncos want to pull off one of their biggest wins ever and gain national recognition. Yes, they want to defend their home turf.

But, then again, no matter what happens, there will still be a rematch, most likely.

”It’s kind of like going to do your wedding vows and you say ‘maybe’ instead of ‘I do,”’ Darnell said, laughing. ”We’ll try it and if we don’t like it, we’ll do something else.”

Other games around the MAC Saturday include Kent (2-8, 2-5 MAC East) at Akron (6-4, 4-3 East), Ball State (0-9, 0-6 West) at Bowling Green (3-6, 2-5 East), Eastern Michigan (4-5, 4-2 West) at Central Michigan (2-7, 1-5 West), Miami of Ohio (6-3, 5-1 East) at Ohio (4-5, 4-2 East), and Northern Illinois (4-5, 4-2 West) at Toledo (4-5, 3-3 West). Outside of the conference, Buffalo (0-9, 0-6 East) visits Virginia (5-4).