HUNTINGTON — To this day, Marshall University football players and fans who played in or watched the 1987 NCAA Division I-AA national championship game wonder “what if?”
Northeast Louisiana rallied from two touchdowns behind to edge the Thundering Herd 43-42 on Dec. 19, 1987, in the Minidome (now Holt Arena) on the Idaho State University campus in Pocatello, Idaho.
What if officials hadn’t ruled that Marshall tailback Ron Darby fumbled at the Indians’ 7 late in the fourth quarter? The steady Brian Mitchell might have kicked the winning field goal for a 45-43 triumph. Or, with its powerful offense, perhaps the Herd would have scored a touchdown and won 49 or 50 to 43.
Of course, Mitchell might have missed, or Northeast Louisiana might have stopped Marshall on the next play.
What if Darby hadn’t lost the ball at all? Or what if the rules were what they are now?
“If we had replay back then, that wouldn’t have been ruled a fumble,” said Marshall fan Sid Torlone, who attended the game.
What if Marshall’s starting cornerbacks, Darryl Burgess and Reggie Giles, hadn’t missed the game with injuries? The Herd could have used those two against NLU quarterback Stan Humphries, who went on to an NFL career with the Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers.
What if Marshall didn’t rough the kicker just before halftime, allowing the Indians to score and take a 21-13 halftime lead?
What if the Herd had kicked an extra point instead of going for two early in the third quarter? The Herd would have trailed 21-20 instead of 21-19 and perhaps the game would have gone to overtime.
What if on third-and-24 at the NLU 40 late in the fourth quarter, Marshall quarterback Tony Petersen had thrown the ball away rather than having it intercepted?
What might have been had Marshall opted to go for it on fourth down rather than kick two field goals early?
“What ifs” work both ways, of course. Suppose Indians running back Tommy Minvielle hadn’t fumbled twice. How would the game have changed if NLU kicker Teddy Garcia hadn’t had a field goal waved off because it hit the ceiling of the mini dome before splitting the uprights?
Marshall had its chances, and Northeast Louisiana earned the victory. Still, players, coaches and fans alike will wonder what might have been.