By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It generally isn’t remembered with the reverence reserved for West Virginia University’s Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma, which saved the program after the Mountaineers tanked as 24.5-point favorites over Pitt in 2006, but in retrospect it is a game that was just as exciting and of almost equal importance.
And what better time is there to look back on that first Marshall game of the modern era and its hero, cornerback Nate Terry, than in the week that the final game of the series is to be played as the opener of a historic season in Mountaineer football?
It is hard to imagine 15 years have passed since that renewal of WVU and Marshall on Aug. 30, 1997 and that today’s 21-year-old seniors were but 6 at that time and the aforementioned Nate Terry has now migrated from his home in Homestead, Fla., to as far away as you can get on this continent shy of Alaska, living in Calgary, Canada.
He is there in no small part because of a couple of daughters and two sons, one of whom has stretched to 6-5 or 6-6 and another who is a junior college star, each he believes with a future.
But the talk on the phone Sunday was of the past, of the day Marshall moved out of Division I-AA and met the Mountaineers in a game so hyped that 65,492 fans jammed Mountaineer Field.
And why not? These were two dynamite football teams that did not like each other one bit.
As it played out, WVU was tested to its limit in the game.
“It was more like a sense of urgency,” Terry said of the feeling on the sideline after falling behind in the fourth quarter. “We knew there was a lot of trash talk on their side, and we said we’ll just let the game speak for itself. When they took the lead it was, ‘Don’t let them beat us.’ They were just coming out of Division I-AA, and with the trash talk it made the game just like the Backyard Brawl.”
Imagine, if you will, the talent that was on the field that day, two quarterbacks who lasted more than a decade in the NFL in Marshall’s Chad Pennington and WVU’s Marc Bulger, a Hall of Fame receiver in Randy Moss, who would catch two TDs, and a future NFL running back named Amos Zereoue at WVU.
“It was amazing,” Terry recalled, speaking of when he arrived at WVU. “I’d heard about Amos, but when I got there it was like, ‘Wow! This man can do cuts and moves like I’ve never seen before.’ I mean, I saw Barry Sanders do them but no one else.”
That these two teams would play for the first time in 74 years was the result of contentious negotiations pushed that put WVU in a position where it really had nothing to win by playing against Marshall, but had a whole lot to lose.
And after taking a ridiculously easy 28-3 lead, WVU found itself trailing, 31-28, in the fourth quarter, one of those touchdowns coming when Moss made a simply unbelievable catch going three feet off the ground and over Terry for a touchdown.
“Oh, yeah, that jump ball,” Terry said, recalling the play. “When I was coming down, he was going up. And he just kept going up.”
At 31-28, a lot was in jeopardy and in his box, athletic director Ed Pastilong knew it.
“It was one of my impressionable and, quite honestly, scary moments,” Pastilong said Sunday before taking his grandchildren into PNC Park in Pittsburgh to take in a Pirates’ game. “If, at that time, it had turned out the other way, it would have had a tremendously adverse effect on the WVU program. We were just climbing into the Top 20 on a regular basis at the time, and that would have set the program back.”
Marshall decided with the lead it was going to go for more and did not want to go away from what it did best, so it kept throwing ... and the young cornerback Terry was the target.
“They did the same play back-to-back. That’s what was odd about it. I was taking the inside guy, and they told me to shade the outside, make him think you’re covering outside but you’ll really be covering the inside,” Terry explained.
“I did that, they threw the ball and I intercepted it, and then they did it again and I intercepted again.”
With 12:57 left Terry stepped in front of LaVorn Colclough and intercepted, setting up a 15-yard TD pass from Bulger to Chad Wable, the Fairmont Senior graduate, to regain the lead at 35-31 with 11:07 left ... a lot of time.
After the ensuing kickoff, Marshall went back to the same play and Terry intercepted again at the Marshall 25. The Mountaineers pushed the ball to the 1 for Zereoue to take it in with 7:56 left. Zereoue would finish the game with 174 yards and three touchdowns.
And that was how it ended, with a sigh of relief.
“I’ve never seen this much hype for a football game before,” said coach Don Nehlen, a man who had actually coached in Michigan-Ohio State games while an assistant to Bo Schembechler at Michigan. “It was a good game for the players, but much better for the crowd.”
As for Terry, he finished his career at WVU with four career interceptions in his two years after junior college and as one of the better kickoff returners in the school’s history with two for TDs and averaging almost 26 yards a return.
He got a couple of looks in the NFL with Cleveland and Seattle but never stuck, wound up battling injuries and playing in Canada, but as Pastilong would say, “in West Virginia, he’s a hero.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.