In our sixth episode of UCF Throwback Classics, it’s the first loss being shown as the UCF Knights, then the Golden Knights, falling to the Marshall Thundering Herd in their first game as a member of a conference.
ESPN put this game on Friday night primetime to highlight the matchup as upstart UCF was viewed as a contender against Mid-American Conference powerhouse Marshall. The Golden Knights would have multiple opportunities to rise up, but fell short 26-21 in what can be argued as the program’s most impactful loss.
The stage was set for this game the prior year when UCF signed a deal to join the Mid-American Conference as a football-only member. The weekend following the signing, MAC member Akron came to Orlando and wanted to “give them a brass knuckle welcome to the MAC conference,” said Akron’s head coach Lee Owens. The Zips would also gather at the middle of the field on UCF’s logo. UCF would blow out Akron 57-17 after building up a 50-3 halftime lead. Brass knuckle welcome indeed. Coming into this game, UCF head coach Mike Kruczek gave some bulletin board material of his own by claiming the Golden Knights would go undefeated and was more worried about the non-conference games. As if Marshall needed any more motivation. This was supposed to be a quarterback battle between Heisman candidate Byron Leftwich for the Thundering Herd and gunslinger Ryan Schneider for the Golden Knights.
As a member of the UCF Marching Knights for five years, I had the opportunity to travel to multiple games at different schools. The atmosphere at Marshall was by far the most hostile. There were enough fans that were very hostile to the band, it was decided when we went down on the field before halftime, female members would be on the inside closer to the field and male members were on the outside closer to the stands. Thankfully, nothing bad happened. The MKs put on an excellent show to the point they got a standing ovation from the Marshall crowd. Many elements of that show still live today in the homecoming show alums join in on. That show at Marshall can be found below. Good luck finding me in this, but I was one of the tuba players. I do have to say the artificial turf used at Marshall University Stadium at the time was nothing more than a thin piece of carpet over concrete. It was awful. Multiple players would suffer sprained ankles during this game because of the turf.
Marshall began with the ball and went three-and-out. UCF’s Asante Samuel caught the punt while running backward around his own 25 and was able to weave his way up the sideline to near midfield. What was looking to be a good opening drive for the Golden Knights turned into a dud as a bad exchange between Ryan Schneider and Alex Haynes led to a fumble recovered by the Thundering Herd. Marshall responded by driving into UCF territory, converting on a fourth and six, and blew it by throwing an interception in the endzone. After pounding the ball with Alex Haynes, Ryan Schenider went over the top and found Tavaris Capers in stride for a 65-yard touchdown strike to take a 7-0 lead. After an Atari Bigby threw a suplex and Aaron Lynche(yes, he was on American Idol) threw an unnecessary forearm leading to a personal foul, Marshall moved into UCF territory. This time, there was no turnover, but the defense was able to hold the Thundering Herd to a 41-yard field goal by Curtis Head to cut UCF’s lead to 7-3 late in the first quarter. UCF converted a fourth and one as the first quarter ended. The drive stalled as the second quarter started and UCF punted. Marshall’s passing game shows signs of life with multiple 20+ yard plays. A badly rolled ankle didn’t stop Leftwich as he hit Josh Davis for an 18-yard touchdown to give Marshall a 10-7 lead. On the next two possession, each team traded three-and-outs. After going zero for their last fourteen third-down attempts, Alex Haynes bounced off a couple of would-be defenders and fought a couple more downfield en route to a 58-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead. Marshall returned the favor by driving down the field. An outstanding run by Brandon Carey set up a short yard score to give the Thundering Herd a 17-14 lead. The Herd would get the ball back and add a 22-yard field goal to make it 20-14 Marshall at halftime.
UCF would start with the ball in the second half, but wasn’t able to capitalize and punted back to Marshall. The Thundering Herd had a nice sustained drive before a 37-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Josh Davis to make it 26-14 after a failed two point conversion attempt. UCF and Marshall would exchange punts. During this time, it was mentioned by the sideline reporter that for UCF’s first two games of the season, they had to cancel multiple practices due to weather. This helped lead to the building of the indoor practice facility that the team has benefited from over the last fifteen plus seasons. On UCF’s next possession, the Golden Knights were able to take advantage of a taunting call on third down, deep in Marshall territory and scored on a 19-yard shovel pass from Schneider to Haynes to close the gap to 26-21 in favor of the Thundering Herd. Marshall and UCF would start trading punts. After four punts between the two teams, Asante Samuel fell victim to the lack of instant replay on a would-be interception in Marshall territory. The drive ended up in a Marshall punt, their fourth in as many drives. UCF would drive down the field, taking advantage of a very lucky bounce on a Schneider strip where he recovered it and threw it downfield to Doug Gabriel and converted a big first down. Scheider would throw an interception on the following play. Leftwich would throw an interception to Samuel near midfield on the next drive and that one counted. Scheider would throw an interception on fourth down to Terence Tarpley and Marshall would run out the clock for the 26-21 win.
Marshall outgained UCF 511-398 with Byron Leftwich winning the QB battle over Ryan Schneider. Leftwich went 28/49 for 340 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions while Schneider finished 17/34 for 260 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The running back battle was good as Marshall’s Brandon Carey carried it 28 times for 142 yards and a touchdown while UCF’s Alex Haynes had 26 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown. Haynes also added a receiving touchdown. No wide receiver for either team broke 100 yards.
It can be argued that this game was the single most pivotal loss in program history when looked at in hindsight. At this point, the closest UCF ever got to a bowl game was a conditional bid in 1998 that failed to materialize. Had UCF defeated Marshall, they would have won the East Division and secured one of the MAC’s two bowl bids at the time. Also, this would have created a different vibe going into the 2003 season, when ended up falling apart and leading UCF into a 17-game losing streak. Had the results in 2002 been different, the circumstances that led to such a disaster in 2003 might not have happened.
It was also in 2003 that conference realignment hit. The Big East was reeling after losing Miami, Virginia Tech, and later Boston College. During their discussions about new members, UCF was talked about as a football-only member. They were in the initial plans and later dropped in the process and replaced with South Florida as an all-sports member after Boston College bolted. Give UCF a divisional or maybe even conference championship, a bowl appearance and maybe even a win, and the result might have been different.
Unfortunately, things played out as they did. UCF had a couple other chances to win the East Division, but it required Miami or Ohio to upset Marshall. Each team nearly did, but they came up just short on both occasions. UCF would finish second in the MAC East Division at 7-5 and no postseason. Marshall would win the MAC Championship and defeat Louisville in the GMAC Bowl.
This matchup is a good example of a manufactured rivalry. ESPN hammed the daylights out of this matchup and while it did not have as much offense as expected, it ended up being a game between the top two teams in the MAC East division. The atmosphere at the game was intence. UCF and Marshall would meet two more times in the MAC with Marshall winning those games and both schools would join Conference USA together. They have played each other nine times since and UCF has won them all.
A number of future NFL players played in this game aside from Leftwich. UCF kicker Matt Prater, who is still active in the NFL, was a freshman kicker. Tight End Michael Gaines, wide receiver Doug Gabriel, defensive ends Elton Patterson and Rashad Jeanty, and defensive backs Atari Bigby and Asante Samuel. Marshall’s Darius Watts, Chris Crocker, and Josh Davis also played a few seasons in the NFL.
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