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Over the years, bowl games have featured incredible comebacks, epic individual performances and bizarre plays.
On this day 20 years, the GMAC Bowl had all of that in one game. In the contest, Marshall rallied from 30 points down to beat East Carolina in two overtimes, 64-61.
Setting the Stage
It wasn’t one of the most heralded bowl games of 2001, but it was one of the most exciting as Marshall and East Carolina met in Mobile on Dec. 19. The Thunder Herd were 10-2, but had recently had their 10-game winning streak snapped with a 41-36 loss to Toledo in the MAC Championship. Marshall was ranked No. 25 in the Coaches Poll.
At 6-5, East Carolina was just looking to shore up a winning season. The Pirates had lost consecutive home games to close the year, but appeared well on their way to finishing the year on a high note.
Back Comes Marshall
Before Marshall could even blink, it was in a 3-touchdown hole. Ty Hunt and Jerome Steward scored defensive touchdowns before quarterback David Garrard scored on a keeper midway through the first quarter.
After a field goal in the second quarter pushed the lead to 24-0, Marshall finally got on the scoreboard as Byron Leftwich hit Darius Watts for a 35-yard touchdown. That was followed by a successful 2-point try, but later in the quarter, it took East Carolina just 73 seconds to score a pair of touchdowns and push the lead to 30.
Leonard Henry and Garrard each rushed for scores to give ECU a 38-8 halftime lead. To begin the second half, the Thundering Herd were sparked by a defensive play.
Ralph Street gave Marshall momentum with a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown. Less than three minutes later, Leftwich rushed for a touchdown to make it a 2-score game, 38-22.
Kevin Miller’s second field goal for East Carolina pushed the lead to 19, but by the end of the third quarter, the lead was down to five. Terrance Tarpley gave Marshall its second 25-yard interception return for a touchdown in the quarter before Franklin Wallace scored from 15 yards out.
What was once a 30-point deficit was now 41-36. Miller’s third field goal of the night extended the lead to eight with less than 11 minutes to play. Marshall however, answered with a 30-yard touchdown toss from Leftwich to Denero Marriot. The chance to tie the game with a 2-point conversion however, failed.
With five minutes remaining, it looked as though ECU may escape. Henry’s 55-yard touchdown run pushed the lead to nine. Marshall was able to crawl back to within a score on Curtis Head’s 27-yard field goal. With less than two minutes to play however, it looked as though it would be a case of too little, too late.
Marshall was unable to recover the ensuing onside kick, but it did have timeouts. With 57 seconds left, the Thundering Herd got one last chance from their own 20-yard-line.
Leftwich was stellar as Marshall went 80 yards in 50 seconds. Watts’ leaping catch in the corner of the end zone with seven seconds left appeared as though it would be the winning score. All Marshall had to do was make the extra point.
That however, was easier said than done. Head’s PAT attempt sailed wide right. The contest went to overtime, tied 51-51.
Despite missing an opportunity to win, Marshall kept its offensive momentum going. The Thundering Herd needed six plays to take their first lead. After a third-down completion from Leftwich to Watts, Marshall rode the legs of Wallace. Wallace went over the top from two yards out to give Marshall its first lead.
East Carolina needed just one play to answer as Henry rushed 25 yards for the tying touchdown. In the second overtime however, the Marshall defense stiffened. Miller’s fourth field goal gave the Pirates a 61-58 lead.
To start Marshall’s final possession, Leftwich found Marriot for 21 yards. The next two plays however totaled negative-4 yards. With Marshall facing 3rd-and-goal from the 8-yard-line, East Carolina was one play from forcing a third overtime.
That would not be the case.
Leftwich capped a record-setting night with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Josh Davis. The comeback in Mobile was complete.
Final score: Marshall 64, East Carolina 61.
The 2001 GMAC Bowl would see numerous records that still stand today. In addition to his four touchdown passes, Leftwich tied a bowl record with 576 yards passing.
Watts and Marriott each had monster nights receiving. Watts finished with seven catches for 133 yards while Mariott hauled in 15 passes for 234 yards. The two teams combined for more nearly 1,100 yards. The Pirates finished with 331 yards on the ground, led by Henry’s game-high 195.
At the time, the contest served as the biggest comeback in bowl history. That was surpassed by TCU, which rallied from 31 points down to beat Oregon in the 2015 Alamo Bowl.
East Carolina remains the highest-scoring team ever to lose a bowl game. The 125 total points remains a bowl record. They came on this day two decades ago.