DETROIT (AP) - Martin Ward's tackle-breaking run and powerful plunge along with a punt return gave Marshall a big lead over Ohio in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Did Ward think it was going to be easy?
"Yeah, pretty much," he acknowledged.
The Bobcats rallied to pull within four points late in the third quarter and had chances to complete the comeback in the fourth, missing a wide-open receiver on a trick play and failing to take advantage of their last two drives before losing 21-17 to Marshall on Saturday.
DeQuan Bembry's interception with 40 seconds left sealed the victory for the Thundering Herd (7-6).
"It was just a relief," Bembry said.
The Bobcats (9-5) rallied with Shannon Ballard's 75-yard return off a fumble in the second quarter, Terrence McCrae's TD catch and Matt Weller's field goal.
"Our players played hard throughout the course of the second half," said Ohio coach Frank Solich, the former Nebraska coach. "But for whatever reason, we were not ready to go at the beginning of the game."
The game looked like it was going to be a rout when Ward's 2-yard run put Marshall ahead 21-0 with 7:21 left in the first half. He scored on a 12-yard run through more than a few defenders and Andre Booker had 58-yard punt return for a touchdown at the end of the quarter.
Just when it appeared to be over, Ballard returned a fumble 75 yards to give Ohio a much-needed spark. The Bobcats carried the momentum into the second half, when Theo Scott connected with McCrae on an 8-yard pass midway through the third quarter.
Weller's 46-yard field goal made it 21-17 with 4:38 left in the third.
Ohio drove to the Marshall 12 - taking advantage of two late-hit penalties against the Herd - but stalled and missed a field goal that would've pulled the Bobcats within a point early in the fourth quarter.
During the drive, wide receiver LaVon Brazill badly overthrew Taylor Price on a play that fooled the Herd.
"We practice that a lot, and LaVon usually puts it right on the money," Price said. "I guess he overestimated my speed or something."
The Bobcats stayed in the game despite just 123 yards of offense.
Marshall didn't exactly move up and down the field at will, but it scored enough early in the game to win.
The schools, located 82 miles apart, played 52 times between 1905 and 2004 in "The Battle for the Bell," with the trophy symbolizing the Ohio River separating Ohio and West Virginia. They hadn't played since Marshall left the Mid-American Conference for Conference USA in 2005.
The Herd was led by interim coach Rick Minter.
Mark Snyder resigned at Marshall after the season and will be replaced by West Virginia assistant coach John "Doc" Holliday, who was an assistant to Urban Meyer on Florida's 2006 national championship team.
"Probably, not many guys from our staff will be asked back," Minter said. "That's part of the business. We're not shedding tears."
Martin is excited about the team's future.
"To do this, after what we've been through in the last month, that shows you what this program is about," he said. "We did this for the seniors, but we can't stop here."
Sarah Thomas made history during the game, becoming the first woman to officiate a bowl game, according to a Little Caesars Bowl spokesman. She was the first woman to be an official for a major college football game in 2007 and is on the NFL's list of officiating prospects.
"It was an honor," Thomas said while running off the field with her colleagues after Marshall's 21-17 victory at Ford Field.
Not many people saw the game at Ford Field.
The bowl, which was known as the Motor City Bowl in its first 12 years, drew a record-low 30,311 fans. Just two years ago, more than twice as many people watched Purdue beat Central Michigan in Detroit. The game attracted fewer than 40,000 only once before when Marshall beat Louisville in 1998 at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Michigan-based Little Caesars Pizza signed a one-year contract to sponsor the bowl after General Motors and Chrysler cut ties.