The 7th and final “Friends of Coal Bowl” between #11 West Virginia and Marshall kickoffs Saturday afternoon at noon (it will be broadcast on FX, for those watching at home). The teams have played annually since 2006 when the series was
forced down WVU’s throats by Governor Manchin scheduled. With WVU now playing 9 conference games in the Big XII, this is likely to be the last game with Marshall for at least several years, or at least until another politician wants some media coverage. Saturday also marks the first game played by the Mountaineers as a member of the Big XII Conference.
Anyway. Of the previous six games, only the 2010 affair was particularly close. That was, of course, the night that Marshall gacked up a 21-6 lead in the 4th quarter and lost to WVU in overtime in the game that was Geno Smith’s coming out party (and the night that Marshall fans still become nauseated when dicussing). WVU won the other 5 games in the series by 32, 25, 24, 17, and 21 points. WVU enters Saturday a 25.5-point favorite, a line that opened at 22 and has crept up steadily. Clearly Vegas doesn’t think it will be close…but are they right?
Before breaking down the players and the x’s and o’s, it is always instructive to note that the WVU game is Marshall’s Super Bowl every season. Many of Marshall’s players are West Virginia natives who were ignored by WVU, Marshall’s head coach (Doc Holliday) is a former longtime WVU assistant, and the Marshall fanbase has a chip on its shoulder the size of Huntington. WVU always gets, and will get on Saturday, Marshall’s best shot. This factor, when combined with the fact that it’s NOT the Super Bowl for WVU, has led to Marshall being competitive for the first half and into the 3rd quarter of games (see, e.g., 2007, 2009, and 2011) until the talent disparity overcomes the emotional edge that Marshall normally carries. Given that WVU enters Saturday ranked 11th, in a new conference, and looking to prove that 2012 can be a special season, one would think that the Mountaineers will be sufficiently motivated to make a statement.
So, is Marshall any good? Holliday has spent two years in Huntington using his Florida connections and ability to take non-qualifiers to his advantage, loading up on players who cannot get into BCS schools due to grades/test scores, as well as transfers from other schools. The results have been a mixed bag, with Marshall going 12-13 under Holliday in his two seasons. Marshall has been pretty good on defense and generally awful on offense, something that has kept them firmly in the middle of the pack in CUSA. Marshall will be one of the youngest teams in college football, sporting only 6(!) seniors on its two-deep roster.
On offense, Marshall returns 8 starters from a squad that an offense that struggled most of 2011 before somewhat getting it together late in the season. The 2012 Herd will be led by sophomore QB Rakeem Cato, who showed promise as a freshman in 2011 and has started in Morgantown before. Marshall’s best RB, Tron Martinez, will miss the game with a knee injury, thus Travon Van will get the majority of carries for Marshall. I anticipate that Marshall will use Cato and two pretty good WR’s, Aaron Dobson and Antavious Wilson, to try to control the ball with the short and intermediate passing game.Defensively, Marshall lost Vinnie Curry and Omar Brown, its two best players, off a good 2011 defense, and must replace 6 starters in all. Marshall’s secondary is VERY young, something that doesn’t bode well going up against the likes of Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey. Marshall has a lot of youth and a lot of talent up front on defense, but it’s difficult to see that unit holding up for 4 periods against a veteran WVU offensive line.
WVU enters the game with a few questions of its own to answer. With RB Dustin Garrison’s status for the season in doubt, can Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie run it enough to keep defenses honest? Will the players take to the new defensive schemes of Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson? How will true freshman Karl Joseph fare as the starter at FS? Will WVU’s kick coverage units avoid giving up the big play (Marshall’s only TD in 2011 came on a punt return)? Fortunately for the Mountaineers, they will have one of the most prolific passing attacks in the country to hold the fort while these questions are being answered.
Prediction: When I did my initial season preview, I predicted a 38-20 WVU win. As I look at the game in more detail, however, it’s hard to see Marshall holding WVU to that figure with such a young defense and with a WVU team likely to be eager to make a statement to the Big XII and the country. Marshall will keep it close for a quarter or two, but in the end, WVU overwhelms a Marshall team that is a year away. WVU 47-17.