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With or without Hill, Herd ready for Toledo

by Rob Peirce

SPORTS WRITER

Byron Leftwich's last pass at Marshall Stadium was one to remember. Graham Gochneaur hopes his first fares the same. Both come against Toledo.

In a rematch of last year's Mid-American Conference Championship game, the Thundering Herd (1-1) host the Rockets (1-1) at 7 p.m. tonight on ESPN. Gochneaur could make his first Marshall start as a result of Stan Hill's sprained knee in last week's loss to Tennessee.

This situation is similar to another ESPN game from last year. After Leftwich injured his shin during a loss to Akron; his status for the following game 10 days later against Miami was up in the air all the way to kickoff. Hill started that game and sparked the Herd to a last-second, controversial victory over Miami which kept Marshall in the MAC East Division race in front of a national TV audience.

Earlier in the week, Herd coach Bob Pruett said Hill is listed as "doubtful" for today's game but wouldn't rule out starting him if he's ready to go. Against Hofstra, Gochneaur attempted just one pass, a 3-yard completion. On Saturday, he completed 7 of 10 passes for 52 yards and had a poor-luck interception against the Volunteers.

"He has really run our offense well," Pruett said. "We didn't cut anything back (from the playbook). He had an interception, but when you look back on film, they mugged the receiver. So basically, he was 7-of-9. He performed extremely well -- to come in there cold in that environment and play as well as he did. It was a dogfight all along (in fall camp) between him and Stan."

Hill earned MAC East Offensive Player of the Week honors for his 16-of-24, 242-yard, three-touchdown performance against Tennessee. Cornerback Roberto Terrell won the same honors on defense with nine solo tackles and one assist.

Toledo opened the season with a 28-18 loss at UNLV but bounced back to defeat I-AA foe Liberty, 49-3. Just as Hill has filled in admirably so far for Leftwich, so too has Rockets quarterback Bruce Gradkowski for Brian Jones. Gradkowski is 28-of-43 for 374 yards and five touchdowns.

Andrew Clarke has six catches for 80 yards and three touchdowns, and Steve Odom has five receptions for 120 yards and two touchdowns. However, the vaunted running game from last year has been grounded so far.

Quinton Broussard, Trinity Dawson and Astin Martin have been labeled as Toledo's "Baby Backs" -- a trio of sophomores in the backfield. They've combined for only 102 yards on 27 carries, with the lone touchdown a 1-yarder from Dawson.

Marshall's two-man running tandem of Franklin "Butchie" Wallace and Earl Charles have been hit-and-miss. They combined for three touchdowns against Hofstra but were kept out of the end zone on a combined 85 yards against Tennessee. Pruett still insists on maintaining a balanced attack.

"We have an excellent offensive line, and we have two excellent running backs," he said.

Marshall and Toledo continue to dominate the MAC. Since moving up from I-AA in 1997, the Herd are 6-for-6 in MAC East titles. They have five MAC Championship titles and five bowl victories. The Rockets have won the last two division titles in the MAC West, dethroned Marshall in the 2001 MAC Championship game and have been to the Motor City Bowl the last two years.

Both schools rank in the nation's top-10 record-wise since 2000. Marshall is 10th at 31-10, and Toledo is tied for ninth with Oregon at 30-9. The last time they met was in last year's MAC Championship game in Huntington. In his final game at Marshall Stadium, Leftwich connected with Darius Watts for a 40-yard touchdown pass in the final minute to give the Herd a 49-45 victory.

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