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Pruett excited about Louisville, GMAC Bowl

by Rob Peirce

SPORTS WRITER

Marshall has the Mid-American Conference Championship game looming in just four days. But win or lose, the Thundering Herd will be going back to the GMAC Bowl on Dec. 18 in a dream matchup for quarterback fanatics.

Late Sunday night, GMAC bowl officials announced Marshall (9-2) will face Louisville (7-5) in this year's version of the bowl. It was no secret the selection committee wanted the Cardinals. But the decision was delayed one day after Louisville left Houston with a 27-10 loss on Saturday.

"We're excited about Louisville," Marshall coach Bob Pruett said. "It will be a lot of fun to go down there again."

The big draw for this game will be Herd quarterback Byron Leftwich against his Cardinals counterpart, Dave Ragone. Both were considered legitimate Heisman trophy candidates at the start of the season.

Leftwich has completed 277 of 405 passes (68.4 percent) for 3,615 yards and 22 touchdowns. Ragone, a product of perennial Ohio high school powerhouse St. Ignatius in Cleveland, is 217-of-396 (54.8 percent) for 2,687 yards and 23 touchdowns.

With two high-powered offenses, this year's GMAC Bowl could be a shootout, but not likely to the extent of last year's game. Marshall came back from a 38-8 halftime deficit for a 64-61 double-overtime victory over East Carolina in the highest-scoring bowl game ever. Leftwich completed 41 of 70 passes for 576 yards and four touchdowns.

The Herd defeated Louisville, 48-29, in the 1998 Motor City Bowl for their first-ever bowl victory. The Cardinals hold a 16-10 overall advantage in the series.

Before playing Louisville, Marshall hosts Toledo (9-3, 7-1 MAC) in the Championship game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.

n STRIKE UP THE BAND: Leftwich might have lost his mobility for awhile, but he still has the smarts to be effective. Because of a bruised shin suffered in the Akron game Nov. 2, Leftwich has practiced just three times in the last four weeks.

But Saturday against Ball State, Leftwich misfired on just 7 of his 42 passes and threw for 401 yards and two touchdowns. It marked the eighth time he's thrown for more than 400 yards in his career.

"His mobility was extremely restricted," Pruett said. "But he's so adept at the line of scrimmage. If you blitz him, somebody's band's going to be playing, and it's usually ours."

n ALL-MAC: Four Marshall players were named to the All-MAC team announced Monday. The list includes Leftwich, left tackle Steve Sciullo, receiver Darius Watts and punter Curtis Head.

Right guard Steve Peretta, free safety Chris Crocker and defensive linemen Orlando Washington, Jamus Martin and Toriano Brown made the second team. Receiver Josh Davis and linebacker Duran Smith earned honorable mention.

n SPECIAL SNAPPER: Backup long snapper Jeff Mullins was named the MAC East Division Special Teams Player of the Week for his contributions against Ball State. Mullins, a redshirt freshman from Gallipolis, Ohio, is listed as a tight end. He filled in for Cory Dennison, who was out with a concussion.

"He hadn't snapped all year long, but he had worked on it (in practice)," Pruett said. "That's pretty special in a game like that, because an errant snap of any kind -- that's a game-turner."

n ALMA MATER COACHES: Both coaches in the Championship game are at the helm of their alma mater. Pruett, a Beckley native, graduated from Marshall in 1965. Tom Amstutz is a 1977 graduate of Toledo.

In this region, head coaches at their alma maters is becoming a trend. The list includes West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Virginia's Al Groh and Maryland's Ralph Friedgen.

Sports writer Rob Peirce can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at rpeirce@exponent-telegram.com.