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Taken by storm

Chris Dorst
WVU quarterback Geno Smith looks for an open receiver behind the blocking of Jeff Braun (57).
Chris Dorst WVU quarterback Geno Smith looks for an open receiver behind the blocking of Jeff Braun (57).
Chris Dorst As expected, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen had his team throwing the ball from the get-go against Marshall.

MORGANTOWN - It was generally accepted that lightning would strike at some point during Dana Holgorsen's debut as West Virginia's head coach.

This, however, wasn't what he or anyone else had in mind.

No, instead of Holgorsen's much-anticipated offense lighting up the scoreboard, it was real lightning - and rain and wind and even a bit of hail - that disrupted and finally aborted WVU and Marshall's attempt to play a season-opening game Sunday at Mountaineer Field.

After playing the better part of three quarters, the teams endured nearly 41/2 hours of weather delays and one brief resumption before the game was finally, mercifully called with West Virginia leading 34-13.

But that didn't happen until 10:24 p.m., six hours and 48 minutes after the 3:36 p.m. kickoff.

That's when the teams announced that they had decided, in conjunction with their conferences, to end the game and call it completed.

The lightning that initially altered the course of the game actually came in the form of two strikes - one figurative and one literal, but neither from a West Virginia offense that was solid but nowhere near spectacular.

Marshall, despite having been dominated for the most part on both sides of the ball, had drawn to within 20-13 with just over five minutes to play in the third quarter. It was about to become interesting.

But then in quick succession, two things happened - Tavon Austin returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown that gave West Virginia a 27-13 lead. And seconds later, real lightning began to strike in the area near Mountaineer Field and the teams went to their respective locker rooms.

In the ensuing 41/2 hours, the teams would return to the field twice, once in an aborted attempted to resume play after just over two hours, then again about an hour later.

The second attempt succeeded, but only briefly and in front of only a few thousand of the original crowd of 60,758. There was enough action only to seal the deal before the game was called for good. A Bruce Irvin sack played a part in Marshall's three-and-out to start the game again, then West Virginia drove 54 yards in 11 plays to score on Vernard Roberts' 1-yard run and make it 34-13.

The teams left the field for the final time at 9:05 - 51/2 hours after kickoff - but it was another 79 minutes before everyone agreed to call it a night.

Austin's kickoff return came at just the moment West Virginia needed it most. The Mountaineers had dominated Marshall for much of the game to that point on both sides of the ball, but were clinging to just a 20-13 lead because of the Herd's own quick strikes. MU had scored on an 87-yard punt return by Andre Booker early in the game and a 25-yard Tyler Warner field goal at the end of a two-minute drive to end the first half, then chipped away with another Warner field goal following a failed WVU fourth-down attempt.

Austin's return - the first by a Mountaineer since his own against Connecticut here two years ago and the sixth 100-yard runback in school history - seemed to take all the air out of any Marshall hopes of a first-ever win over WVU. He took the ball 3 yards deep in the end zone, weaved his way quickly to about the 30, began cutting back against the grain to the middle of the field and then sprinted straight down the middle for the score.

Until the weather interruption, the main story line was West Virginia's offense, but not its explosiveness. The Mountaineers played well, scoring on four straight possessions in the first half after an opening three-and-out, but it wasn't the kind of lights-out performance that many had expected.

Instead, it was at times almost methodical. On the four drives following that three-and-out to start the game, WVU ran nine, 12, 14 and seven plays on possessions that resulted in two Tyler Bitancurt field goals (27 and 43 yards) sandwiched around Geno Smith touchdown passes of 4 yards to Ivan McCartney and 15 yards to Stedman Bailey.

Those four drives had given West Virginia a 20-7 lead and the mismatch was near total. To that point WVU had run 41 plays and gained 217 yards, while Marshall had run just 11 plays and gained 47 yards.

But the punt return by Booker had kept the Herd alive and then when true freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato led a 72-yard drive in 10 plays to end the first half with a field goal it was interesting again at 20-10.

It got even more interesting when West Virginia generated just one first down on its first two possessions of the second half and failed on a fourth-and-inches play near midfield. That led to Warner's second field goal and the slim 20-13 deficit before Austin's return broke it open again.

The simple truth is that West Virginia's offense didn't generate the kind of numbers that some expected - namely the ones put up by Holgorsen's teams in his debuts at Houston in 2008 and Oklahoma State in 2010, which produced a combined 120 points. Marshall's defense no doubt played a part in that.

The running game went nowhere, and up until the weather delay Smith had managed to complete 21-of-27 passes for 198 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. And while those were effective numbers, they weren't of the eye-popping variety many had expected.

Smith - who finished 26-for-35 for 249 yards - also spent many plays scrambling in or out of the pocket to avoid a heavy rush. Had it not been for his ability to escape and buy time, he might have been sacked six or eight times instead of just once. He also scrambled twice for first downs.

Marshall's offense, though, was for the most part no match for West Virginia's rebuilt defense. Until the rain delay, the Herd had seven possessions. Five of them resulted in a total of three first downs, including one possession that ended with a fourth-and-27.

But the other two - the 72-yard two-minute drill at the end of the first half and the 47-yarder after WVU's failed fourth-down try - resulted in field goals and that, along with the Booker punt return, was enough to keep the Herd in the game.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.

 

 


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