HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) _ Marshall-Montana is NCAA Division I-AA’s version of Florida-Florida State.
Marshall was No. 1 in the polls all season, chased by No. 2 Montana. Both teams drubbed opponents regularly, even in the playoffs.
Now they meet Saturday to settle it with Montana riding a 21-game winning streak, including a 22-20 victory over Marshall in the championship game a year ago.
Montana (14-0) has five first-team All-Americas, while Marshall (14-0) has two first-teamers and five on the second team.
Montana’s offense is much like Florida’s spread passing game, with All-America quarterback Brian Ah Yat triggering the attack. Marshall’s Florida transfer, Eric Kresser, throws regularly to Florida State transfer Randy Moss. And the Herd has two running backs _ Erik Thomas and Doug Chapman _ of the Warrick Dunn ilk.
``I think it’s very clear that Montana and Marshall are the two best teams in the playoffs,″ said Marshall coach Bob Pruett. ``Some people have even said the winner of this game might be declared the best I-AA team so far.″
Montana coach Mick Dennehy also has heard that talk.
``I think that’s a historical question,″ he said. ``I think (reporters) need to address that, and maybe include (four-time champion) Georgia Southern and some of those other people. ... It may be a game in which maybe the two best teams have played at one time, I don’t know. But that’s for other people to answer.″
Ah Yat was a pleasant surprise replacing Montana’s 1995 I-AA player of the year, quarterback Dave Dickenson. It was Dickenson who, after 10 Marshall sacks, drove his team for a winning field goal.
``I’m very glad that Dickenson’s not back this year, to be honest with you,″ said Marshall defensive end Billy Lyon. ``But Ah Yat’s a great quarterback. He’s had a great year.
``Come Saturday, I don’t look for him to have a bad game,″ Lyon said. ``We just have to get pressure on him, and force him into some mistakes. Hopefully we’ll keep their offense off the field and let our offense have the ball.″
Ah Yat has had Dickenson-like numbers, throwing for 4,677 yards and 51 touchdowns.
``Brian’s had a truly amazing year, I think simply because he is smart enough to establish his own standards and didn’t think much about living up to anybody else’s,″ Dennehy said.
Much of Ah Yat’s success can be traced to All-America receiver Joe Douglass, who has 110 receptions for 1,849 yards and 20 touchdowns this season.
But the Grizzlies’ defense is often wrongly overlooked.
``Our defense has probably carried us and been our strength all year long,″ Dennehy said.
While Montana’s defense was allowing the offense break-in time for Ah Yat, Marshall’s defense was enabling the same kind of adjustment.
Kresser beat out last year’s starter quarterback, Chad Pennington. And Marshall added the 6-foot-5 freshman Moss, who joined Douglass on the All-America team with 1,489 yards receiving and 24 scores.
``Randy Moss is a very unique player because he is tall and can run so well,″ said Montana defensive back Blaine McElmurry. ``So we’re going to have a difficult time covering him, and we’re going to have to do a few things to try and slow him down.″
Montana has been thriving on confidence spawned with the championship win.
The Herd, meantime, is trying to put behind a 1-4 record in I-AA title game appearances.
Kresser, not part of last year’s team, says he’s been around the other players enough to understand.
Plus, he can draw on last year’s experience as a backup with Florida, which lost 62-24 to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.
``All the players are really excited to be here,″ he said. ``We know the national championship’s on the line. Other than the school, everything’s pretty much the same.″
Pruett, Florida’s defensive coordinator last season, couldn’t resist interjecting his own thoughts.
``I hope it’s not the same,″ he said, drawing several laughs. ``It doesn’t take Kojak to figure that one out.″