Experience in big games made all the difference in Chad Pennington's showdown with Tim Lester.
Pennington passed for 339 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the fourth major-college quarterback to throw for 100 TDs, as No. 12 Marshall stayed undefeated with a 31-17 victory over Western Michigan. Marshall clinched a third straight Mid-American Conference East title Saturday.
"You've got to love this kind of game," Pennington said. "Big crowd. Big game. This is what you play college football for."
The two quarterbacks, among the top five in the nation in passing efficiency, will meet again in three weeks. Western Michigan (7-3, 6-1 MAC) had already clinched the MAC West title. That means the Broncos will play Marshall (10-0, 7-0) on Dec. 3 at Huntington, W.Va. for the conference championship and a berth in the Motor City Bowl.
Marshall, whose 14-game winning streak is the nation's longest among Division I-A teams, has played in the last two Motor City bowls, losing to Mississippi in 1997 and beating Louisville last season.
Pennington, second in the country with a rating of 173.6, completed 27-of-40 passes to eight receivers. Lester, fifth with a rating of 151.5, hit 24-of-43 for 193 yards and one touchdown, but Marshall turned both of the interceptions off him into scores.
"I was excited, especially early," Lester said. "I just had too much adrenaline. This is a team that's in our conference, it's at home, and it's been hyped all week."
Did the Thundering Herd's experience in big games give them an advantage?
"Maybe," said Lester, who has 30 touchdown passes while Pennington leads the nation with 31, giving him 101 in his three major-college seasons.
Pennington, who played as a freshman when Marshall was still a Division I-AA member, moed into third place on college football's all-division passing yardage list with 13,229, trailing only BYU's Ty Detmer (15,031) and Alcorn State's Steve McNair (14,496). In three major-college seasons, Pennington has thrown for 10,784 yards, ninth on the career list.
Lester, who had given up seven interceptions all season, made a terrible decision that resulted in his eighth on the Bronco's first possession. Hemmed in near the Western sideline, Lester probably should gone out of bounds for a loss. Instead, he tossed a little floater that was picked off by linebacker Andre O'Neal at the Broncos 32.
"I finally spotted my receiver after running around for what seemed like 10 minutes," Lester said. "That's real frustrating when that happens."
Marshall, handing the ball to Doug Chapman four straight times, quickly made it 7-0. Chapman, making his first start since going down with a hyperextended knee two weeks ago, scored on a 3-yard sweep around right end. Chapman finished with 108 yards yards on 29 carries.
The Broncos blocked a 49-yard field goal attempt by J.R. Jenkins late in the first quarter and went 25 yards in seven plays for Brad Selent's 53-yarder, closing the gap to 7-3.
With Lester 3-of-4 for 37 yards, the Broncos put together a 63-yard, eight-play drive climaxed by Robert Sanford's 4-yard run, giving Western a 10-7 lead with 4:35 left in the second quarter.
It didn't last long. The Thundering Herd needed only 1:40 to lead 14-10 as Pennington had completions of 14 and 38 yards in a 69-yard drive climaxed by Chapman's 1-yard dive.
The Herd, one of only five undefeated Division I-A teams in the country going in, locked it up with three straight scores in the third quarter. The longest of those three drives took only 1:49 to complete.
"We thought we thought ourselves in the foot in the first half with a couple of penalties," Pennington said. "We thought we needed to attack downfield a little bit."
Pennington tossed a 19-yard touchdown to James Williams with 12:14 left in the third quarter. Ten seconds later, Marshall had the ball again this time at Western's 39 after Lester's pass was picked off by Yancey Satterwhite on the first snap.
The Herd turned that mistake into a 26-yard field goal by Jenkins.
Pennington had a 34-yard completion during Marshall's next possession as the Herd went 69 yards in six plays, capped by a 19-yard TD strike to Lanier Washington for a 31-10 lead with 3:42 left in the third quarter.
Lester tossed a 1-yard TD pass to Mobalaji Afariogun with 6:08 left in the game.
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed