WASHINGTON — Shouts of "We are Marshall!" rang out in the lobby of the team's downtown Washington hotel, where exuberant, green-clad fans of the Thundering Herd had gathered on the eve of Friday's Military Bowl matchup against Maryland in Annapolis.
The Thundering Herd, from Conference USA, may not be as well known as Maryland, which is playing its last game before joining the Big Ten next season. But the Terps (7-5) know that Marshall (9-4) — which averages 43 points and 502.3 yards per game and is vying for its first 10-win season since 2002 — will pose a difficult test at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Marshall's junior quarterback Rakeem Cato led Conference USA by throwing 36 touchdown passes in a spread attack.
"So many teams nowadays play the three and four wide-receiver sets and spread you out," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "You see Clemson do those sorts of things. But they [the Thundering Herd] have their own unique identity."
Marshall, which has a small but devout fan base, will always be associated with the 1970 plane crash that claimed 75 lives, including 37 members of the football team, near Kenova, W.Va. The tragedy, recounted in a 2006 movie called "We are Marshall," was invoked Thursday as the Terps and Thundering Herd shared a luncheon in a vast hotel ballroom.
"I grew up 20 minutes from there and was 13-years-old when it all happened," said Marshall coach Doc Holliday. "So I've got a total understanding of what it all meant. I've been to places that had bigger budgets, had bigger stadiums, had bigger fan bases. But I've never been to a job where the football program means more to the fan base."
Marshall's football helmets feature a "75" in memory of those lost in the crash. The Thundering Herd's helmets for Friday's game will also honor the armed forces.
Jack Lengyel, who became head coach in 1971, will be an honorary Marshall captain for Friday's game and will appear in a pregame parade in Annapolis. Lengyel was portrayed in the movie by Matthew McConaughey.
For years, the shared memory of the tragedy has helped unite Marshall and its fans.
"It gives us chills," said offensive lineman Clint Van Horn, a redshirt sophomore from Beckley, W.Va., who said he grew up hearing about the crash. "It's something special to represent those guys [who were killed] on the field and we'll take the momentum in with us."
Maryland's players have learned more this week about the tragedy, the worst sports-related plane crash in American history. Roy Tabb, a wide receiver on Marshall's 1971 team, appeared at Thursday's lunch and was applauded by the players.
"I just couldn't imagine going through that," Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown said. "I did see the movie — a very emotional and sad movie, but a great story nonetheless. To have one of the freshman members here today, that was kind of special."
The Terps haven't played in a bowl game since defeating East Carolina in the 2010 Military Bowl in Washington. Marshall, which won the Conference USA East Division title, was last in a bowl game when it defeated Florida International in the 2011 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
Edsall likened the bowl experience to playing in a season opener. In both cases, he said, teams have had long layoffs before getting into the familiar game-week schedules. Maryland did not take Christmas off, practicing on the holiday after participating in bowl-week events that included a tour of the U.S. Capitol and a performance by a hypnotist.
Edsall said it helped the Terps to have a long period in which to study Cato and his offense.
"We think that we've got a good handle on what they're going to do," Edsall said.
The Terps hope to unsettle Cato with pressure. Marshall, which runs its offense at a fast pace, ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring, first downs, third-down conversions and red-zone offense.
Maryland averages three sacks per game, tied for 10th nationally.
"Their pass rush is probably the best we're going to see all year," Van Horn said.