Mountaineers and The Herd
In late July I wrote about this year's annual edition of the Friends of Coal Bowl.
I essentially said Marshall by three.
No, scratch "essentially."
And this is the last time you'll hear the U-word from me.
It's in the best interest of West Virginia football to pitch a shutout and, as they failed to do against Coastal Carolina, run up the score early.
Head coach Bill Stewart's gentlemanly level of five touchdowns would suffice. Mountaineer fans prefer to see them by 4:00 remaining in the second quarter so they can drive safely to the local convenience store to refill without missing much action.
Marshall would like to take this one into the fourth quarter hoping an unhinged crowd of Thundering Herd fans will stay -- they've been known to leave early -- to urge on the green and white like the wild-eyed southern boys they are.
In 2006 and 2008, two of the four previous Friends of Coal Bowls, West Virginia went wire-to-wire in Morgantown and dominated. The other two -- 2007 in Huntington and 2009 in Morgantown --Marshall entered the locker room with a halftime lead. The Mountaineers took total command in the second half in both games, winning decisively.
West Virginia's defense was on display in all its glory last weekend. Some feel it's apparent the 11 of them work as a unit that has the potential to completely exert its will in any situation.
Don't get me wrong. The Mountaineers won't stop the opponent every time. It's just different this year. With leaders like cornerback Brandon Hogan, defensive tackle Scooter Berry, and junior safety Robert Sands, you'll have to go back to Don Nehlen's days in the mid 1990's to find a time West Virginia's big D held sway on critical downs.
West Virginia's defense is a fast, extremely fast, swarm of hard hitters. They're fast from d-line to safeties. They're fast two-deep.
The Mountaineer D will probably chew up Marshall quarterback Brian Anderson's offense. For that reason, Marshall's best chance to win is to keep the score low and hang around deep into the fourth quarter.
It's possible. WVU's offensive line did not respond well to Coastal Carolina game-planning the run. Noel Devine eventually popped one for 39 yards, but he spent much of the afternoon in the bottle.
Although the Herd's defensive backfield ranks are thin, Marshall's defense is quite good on the d-line and back on the linebackers. These seven large men, including one 6 foot 250 pound linebacker named Thumper who sports a 4.35 40, must a) put the heat on in the trenches and b) take some chances to pressure and hurry West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith.
Marshall also needs takeaways without giving up turnovers. Geno, who lost focus on the pass that was intercepted by Coastal Carolina, has to keep his head in the game. He's not going to have as much time as he did against the Chanticleers.
Geno's young, albeit good in the pocket. The Thundering Herd defense could help their cause by making Smith run, not one of his favorite things to do. Who's to say what could happen then?
Low score? That's where West Virginia is vulnerable and Marshall has the best opportunity. High score? The Herd will not be able to keep up. WVU must put it in the end zone ASAP and send the fans home to plug in their VCRs and watch old tapes of Chad Pennington and Randy Moss.
It's the dawn of the new season. We've seen West Virginia and Marshall each on the field once, in the friendly confines of Morgantown and under attack by 104,000 in Columbus. They played teams that could not be more diametrically opposed. Ohio State is a preseason contender for the Bowl Championship Series title game. Coastal Carolina's football players go to school at the beach.
I don't know about this game. It's in Huntington, where too many seats are empty and the feeling is anything but big-time football. Although this Friday night under the lights is against West Virginia, the whole thing is more like high school than you think.
That could be due to the fact that the tone of Marshall is high school.
Because of the paper-thin ranks at some of the positions, Herd head coach Doc Holliday has kept the red shirts off of some true freshmen. In other words, the USA Today Coaches' No. 22 ranked team is in town and the true frosh will be playing. Just 11 months ago they were homecoming queen escorts.
It's not just football. Growing up within a 20 mile radius from campus, a significant number of Marshall University freshmen commute. So, there you have it. Marshall freshmen live with their parents and are in the 13th grade.
There are only two Football Bowl Subdivision universities in the state of West Virginia. The governor, the popular Democrat Joe Manchin III, without a doubt encourages the Mountaineers to play the Herd each year. Otherwise, the West Virginia brass would not let this game happen.
Before the renewal of the game in 2006, one of Marshall's primary arguments was a) Auburn and Alabama are required by law to play each other every year and b) so why can't our legislature pass a similar law?
I googled that one until my computer smoked and found nothing. Tell me if I'm missing something.
Even if I didn't do good research and missed it, the two situations are extremely different. Assuming it is true that the Alabama legislation passed, it's not the same. Auburn and Alabama play on the same level in the same Southeastern Conference. Each team brings the same things to the table.
Marshall's Conference USA and West Virginia's Big East Conference, on the other hand, are not evenly matched. WVU brings the ribs, the pulled pork sandwiches, the cole slaw, the corn, and the beer, while Marshall stopped at the strip mall to get a TCBY ice cream cake.
All metaphors aside, here's a thought: If Marshall would field a team, the Friends of Coal Bowl would not be moot and your governor wouldn't make WVU play you. They'd sign up themselves.
Find another argument, Herdsters.
You tried coercion. For 10 years from the mid 1990's through 2004, the Herd's head coach was Bobby Pruett. Pruett went on a campaign to get WVU to schedule Marshall. Advertising billboards proclaiming, "WVU, Let's Play Ball!" were around every bend along Interstate 79 between Charleston and Morgantown. They were equally annoying and ineffective.
So, I've reached the conclusion that it would be much more advantageous to play Marshall every year. Trying to explain to the hounding Herd faithful why WVU did not want to play Marshall is much more difficult.
ESPN will carry the game from Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington. That leaves many football experts struggling to find national interest. The answer to that: there isn't much.
One explanation for ESPN's decision is, of course, business. According to The US Census Bureau, almost 600,000 people will be within an hour of Marshall's on-campus stadium. That number of folks is equivalent to the Badgers' Madison, Wisconsin, or the new epicenter of college football, Boise, Idaho.
If you throw in the rest of the state, and they are interested, you probably have another three-quarters of a million who have access to a television. The numbers say it may be worth it.
That many people that close to any national telecast may surprise those of you who think Almost Heaven is a hick state.
Mea culpa, dude, and proud of it.
So, on Friday night, this hick is going to sit in front of a flat screen 30 minutes from the stadium near a convenience store with a really fun rabid Mountaineer fan.
Several scenarios have been laid out in this article. Which ones will come to pass? I don't know, but it will all unfold on The Worldwide Leader In Sports.