GREATEST MOMENTS | In 1998, UMass went from one of the worst to first in the nation

Nobody saw it coming. Except Mark Whipple.

Following the Minutemen's 2-9 season in 1997, Whipple was hired as head coach of the Massachusetts football team.

But he didn't just talk about winning — he talked about winning a national championship.

A year later, on Dec. 19, 1998, UMass delivered just that.

The Minutemen upset top-ranked Georgia Southern 55-43 for its first NCAA Division I-AA championship capping an amazing turnaround that strained for the appropriate adjective.

"It's Mass hysteria," headlined The Boston Globe.

"This is unbelievable," junior quarterback Todd Bankhead said after the game. "I can't even describe this season and the guys here and the way things have come together. It's by far the tightest team I've ever been a part of. It's incredible."

Sophomore Marcel Shipp rushed for three touchdowns and a record 244 yards as 11th-seeded UMass set a title game record for points.

"This is unreal," Shipp said. "I feel great about this win. We deserve it. We deserve this championship. We're going to get respect after this one."

Shipp's counterpart, Georgia Southern's Adrian Peterson, rushed for 161 yards and two touchdowns. The teams set a combined for most points ever in a title game, topping the 86 scored in 1985 by Georgia Southern and Furman.

But Shipp and the defense stole the show. UMass completed a dramatic season by forcing seven turnovers against Georgia Southern, which the Minutemen converted into 31 points. Six of the turnovers were fumbles, a title-game record.

The Minutemen, led by senior co-captains Khari Samuel and Kerry Taylor, finished 12-3. Nine of their first 13 games decided in the final minute or overtime. They rallied with 20 points in the fourth quarter of the NCAA semifinals to beat then Northwestern State, 41-31 victory.

Whipple said the players thanked him for guiding them to a most unexpected title.

''And I thanked them back,'' he said. ''That's what it's all about. It's just like at Christmas, when you see your son open up the bike for Christmas.

"This is Christmas. You have 56 kids here and see their parents there, it is just a wonderful experience.''

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