Marshall 49, Montana 29
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) _ Marshall, a perennial NCAA Division I-AA runner-up, imported receiver Randy Moss from Florida State and Eric Kresser from Florida to get it over the championship hump this season.
Moss caught nine passes for 220 yards and four touchdowns and Kresser was 18-of-28 for 324 yards and four touchdowns Saturday as the Thundering Herd beat Montana 49-29 for the title.
``I’m not sure anybody in our division could beat Marshall University today,″ Montana coach Mick Dennehy said. ``They are to be commended. Marshall has too many weapons. Nobody during the season had an answer for Moss. We didn’t have an answer for Moss today.″
Marshall avenged a 22-20 loss to Montana (14-1) in last year’s championship game, broke the Grizzlies’ 21-game winning streak, and became only the second I-AA team _ Georgia Southern was the first in 1989 _ to win the title with a 15-0 record.
And Marshall, headed to the Division I-A Mid-American Conference next season, finished a more palatable 2-4 in I-AA title games, also winning in 1992 while losing in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995.
Second-seeded Marshall, of the Southern Conference, and top-seeded Montana, of the Big Sky, seemed only separated by a couple time zones entering the game at Marshall Stadium. Both teams had drubbed opponents regularly and had eerily similar statistics. For instance, each had scored 609 points.
But the Herd quickly asserted superiority.
On the first play of the game, Kresser lofted a ball deep for Moss. Montana cornerback Billy Ivey, about six inches shorter than Moss, could do nothing but hang onto the receiver, getting whistled for interference.
Seven plays later, Moss shielded Ivey from the ball in the end zone for a 19-yard reception and a 7-0 lead.
Moss added a 70-yard touchdown later in the half, blowing by two Montana defensive backs and taking Kresser’s spiral for a 20-0 lead. A play earlier, linebacker Larry McCloud had stripped the ball away from Montana quarterback Brian Ah Yat and linebacker John Grace recovered at the Herd 30, killing a promising Grizzlies drive.
Montana did have one flicker of hope, scoring on 40- and 27-yard field goals just prior to halftime to cut it to 23-6 at intermission.
But Marshall, which blew a 28-0 lead over Youngstown State in the ’92 title game before coming back to win, turned to its talented transfers to put it away.
On the second play of the third quarter, Kresser, a senior, read blitz and threw a short pass to Moss. Moss weaved across the field, down the sideline and broke a tackle at the 5 for a 54-yard score.
``They were determined,″ Marshall first-year coach Bob Pruett said of his players. ``They felt they let an opportunity slip away a year ago. They weren’t going to let it happen today.″
Moss put the exclamation point on the rout at the beginning of the fourth quarter, taking a 28-yard pass into the end zone, then running up a snowy earthen embankment and into the clutches of exuberant Herd fans.
The game put the finishing touches on a brilliant first year for Moss, who set school records for points (168), touchdowns (28) and career touchdown receptions (27). He also set a playoff record for touchdowns (nine) and receiving yardage (636) and tied the title-game record for touchdown catches (four).
``Moss,″ Dennehy said, ``is the finest I’ve seen in 24 years of coaching.″
Montana All-America linebacker Jason Crebo said he was ``speechless″ about Moss.
``We haven’t seen a player like that all year,″ Crebo said.
Moss, who wasn’t even sure he would play football again at the beginning of this season after a brush with the law, was modest about his accomplishments.
``I thank God for my ability to play and a chance to get on the gridiron again,″ Moss said.
Moss also said a big reason for Marshall’s success was ``the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 offense practicing against each other every day.″
Ah Yat, who had thrown for 4,677 yards and 51 touchdowns, finished 36-of-55 for 335 yards and two touchdowns, but 169 yards came in the final quarter.
``The defense really rose up,″ Pruett said. ``Montana had a potent offense. We shut them out. We shut them down. ... We got the game out of hand because of our defense.″
Ah Yat helped Montana establish a tournament record with 1,709 yards passing in four games.
Montana’s Joe Douglass caught 13 passes for 117 yards, giving him a record 41 receptions in the playoffs.
Marshall’s Erik Thomas rushed for 114 yards and Montana’s Josh Branen had 101.