HUNTINGTON — Marshall’s 10-3 victory over Illinois State on Nov. 10, 1984, didn’t make the Top 50 Moments list by The Herald-Dispatch but it could have.
Instead, that triumph over the Redbirds is lumped in with the 31-28 win over East Tennessee State one week later. Beating ETSU gave the Thundering Herd a 6-5 final record and secured the program’s first winning season since 1964. Without beating Illinois State, however, Marshall would have finished no better than 5-6.
In fact, 5-6 appeared the best the Herd would do. Marshall was coming off a terribly lackluster 30-0 loss at Western Carolina and players were demoralized.
“Right after the game, in the first few minutes, was honestly the first time I thought we wouldn’t do it,” MU wide receiver Billy Hynus said of posting a winning record. “Two games on the road you’ve got to win — that’s tough. Then the coaches came in and pumped us up. We did still have two games and that’s what we needed. It was down to character at that point.”
Assistant coach Mark Deal gave the most inspiring speech.
“We’ve still got two games left, don’t we?” Deal said. “That’s how many we need to win, isn’t it? We’re going to do it. You have to believe it. We’re going to do it.”
Deal might have convinced the players, but not Stan Parrish. The first-year head coach of the Herd admitted that on the bus ride back to Huntington from Cullowhee, North Carolina, he doubted whether his team could pull off two consecutive victories to end the season. History supported Parrish’s uncertainty: Marshall hadn’t won consecutive road games since 1958.
Illinois State, too, was fighting for a winning season, entering the contest with a record identical to Marshall. The Redbirds, though, fielded largely the same team that had beaten the Herd 27-3 a year earlier in Huntington. Las Vegas was in a similar frame of mind as Parrish, establishing Illinois State as a two-touchdown favorite.
“Nobody’s giving us much of a chance, are they?” Parrish asked The Herald-Dispatch sports writers Rick Nolte and me during the week. “We’re going to surprise some people.”
Parrish said he felt something in his team. Marshall caught a break with the weather as the mild, breezy morning in Normal, Illinois, became a blustery afternoon of freezing rain and hail. Temperatures plunged from the mid-40s to the 20s as the wind gusted to 40 mph and a tornado passed within 10 miles of Hancock Stadium.
Neither team generated much offense, but Marshall punter Mike Salmons was superb in keeping the Redbirds bottled up.
The Herd scored first as Carl Fodor hit tailback Robert Surratt on a circle route that turned into a 31-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Those were all the points Marshall needed.
Illinois State hurt itself with two lost fumbles and an interception. Paul Politi’s 23-yard field goal in the third quarter was all the scoring the Redbirds mustered and MU’s Kevin Gault matched that with a 27-yarder with 10 minutes left in the game.
“What did I tell you?” Parrish crowed as he emerged from the locker room. “Nobody gave us a chance to come in here and win, but we did it. You don’t know how proud I am of these kids. Their backs were against the wall. They really showed something. They want to win.”
No way would Marshall be denied the next week at East Tennessee State. The Herd believed they had the better team, no matter the location. They were right.
The win over East Tennessee State officially ended the losing, but beating Illinois State was just as huge.