There was a point late Friday evening where it seemed a certainty that Marshall University’s football team was going to claim its first ever win over West Virginia University. Whether it was the Thundering Herd’s defense or the stumbling WVU offense is up for debate, but with less than nine minutes to go in the game Marshall had the ball inside the West Virginia 10 yard line with a 21-6 lead, threatening to go up 28-6.
A score of any kind at that point would have made the game a three possession game for WVU to have any chance of a comeback. Considering the fact that Marshall had kept West Virginia out of the end zone all night, the outcome seemed assured even with the score at 21-6.
Well, as most of us already know, WVU managed to come back and steal a 24-21 overtime win over the stunned Herd in Huntington. Most of us here in the eastern panhandle don’t have the same feel for this game as those who live south of Flatwoods. There is considerable dislike between the fans of both schools the closer one gets to Charleston and Huntington.
As I understand it, there has always been some contention among the fans there, be it academic or athletic endeavors. Then came Marshall’s 1AA championship runs in the 90s. That is when Herd Coach Bob Pruett began to make noise about West Virginia and Don Nehlen choosing to duck the Herd in spite of the Huntington school asking to be on the WVU schedule. The more Pruett spoke about WVU not playing the Herd, the more the fans began arguing the claims of the Herd coach. That was impetus that helped the rivalry among the fans to reach the point it has.
Adding some fuel to the fire was Marshall hiring WVU Assistant Head Coach Doc Holiday as their head coach last December. Holiday was a former player at WVU and has been on staff at WVU under Nehlen and current Coach Bill Stewart. Known primarily as a strong recruiter, Holiday incensed many WVU faithful by trying to get kids he had commit to West Virginia to change their pledge to the Herd.
Suffice it to say the emotions were high on at least one side of the field when the game began last Friday night. I wouldn’t say WVU was flat, but they did not appear to match the intensity of Marshall. What did become painfully obvious was that the WVU offensive line continues to struggle. The Mountaineers had trouble blocking the run, pass and place kicks. What was a big question mark coming into the season remains a very big concern. Some schematic changes may need to be made to compensate for the problems up front.
Still, the Mountaineers did snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and, in doing so, quarterback Geno Smith has come to the fore. In less than eight minutes, the talented true sophomore drove his team 96 and 98 yards for touchdowns. The final score came with 12 seconds left on a five-yard pass to tight end Will Johnson who was tiptoeing along the end line in the back of the end zone. The comeback still needed a two-point conversion to be completed and Smith found Jock Sanders, again along the end line, for the tying score.
West Virginia had to settle for a Tyler Bitancurt field goal in overtime to take a 24-21 lead, but that would be enough as Marshall missed a 39-yard attempt on their overtime possession.
What happens with the WVU offense from this point is a hot topic. So far the Mountaineers have been unable to establish the run the way they would like to. The odds of this team just lining up and running the ball down the other team’s throat are remote at this point. That is too bad for Noel Devine, who really doesn’t need much of a seam to make huge gains. Devine has rushed for over 100 yards in each of his first two games, but opponents have made him use over 20 carries a game to get those yards.
With Smith looking so efficient in the hurry up offense against Marshall, might we expect to see the offense open things up a little bit this week against Maryland? Smith is completing 72% of his passes and he doesn’t have the kind of running skills of a Pat White, Jarrett Brown or Rasheed Marshall. Smith does have passing skills we haven’t seen since Marc Bulger was at West Virginia.