WVU owns series, for a lot of reasons
HUNTINGTON - So why has West Virginia won all six games against Marshall in this seven-year renewal of the soon-to-go-dormant rivalry?
Not everybody at once, please.
Obviously, WVU has been the consistently better team, but that was expected when Gov. Joe Manchin brokered the series. The 6-0 mark, however, is really grating to Thundering Herd fans, who will agonize over the 2010 game until their dying days.
So, with the seventh and final game of the current contract commencing at noon today, exactly how has Marshall lost the first six by a combined 199-77? And how can the Herd engineer an eyebrow-raising upset today?
With the 11th-ranked Mountaineers coming off a 70-33 drubbing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, these are still the glory years for that program. This will be the fifth time WVU enters the Marshall game ranked.
Removing the six wins over Marshall, the Mountaineers are 53-19 since 2006, including a 30-12 mark in Big East play. They have shared three Big East titles in that stretch, winning two Bowl Championship Series games.
For Marshall, the start of the series came four years after the Herd's last 10-win season of 2002, in the second year of the middling Mark Snyder era and about the time the program really felt the sting of NCAA sanctions.
Removing the six losses to WVU, Marshall is 31-37 since 2006, with a middle-of-pack 23-25 record in Conference USA contests.
The Mountaineers have had Pat White, Jarrett Brown and Geno Smith at the controls - two sure-fire school hall of fame members and at least one probable College Hall of Fame enshrinee. Marshall has had Bernard Morris, Brian Anderson, Mark Cann and Rakeem Cato, none often mentioned in the same sentence with Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
WVU's trio has combined complete 73 percent of their passes for 1,227 yards and 10 touchdowns, all seemingly puncturing the Marshall psyche. Smith's 96- and 98-yard drives to tie the 2010 game in Huntington are among the best back-to-back marches in WVU history.
Herd quarterbacks have had a few stinkers, including Cann's 15-of-36 game in 2008. Last year, Cato went 15-of-21 with no interceptions but gained just 115 yards. Clearly, the game plan was conservative.
Cato is eager to take his second shot, and his teammates are more than eager to see what he can do.
"I think he handled it well as a true freshman," said Marshall receiver Aaron Dobson. "I couldn't imagine playing as a true freshman in something like that. Now, he's got a whole bunch of experience. He's ready now."
Quick trivia questions: Who has had MU's only rushing touchdown in the six games?
Anderson, whose mobility fell well short of WVU's White, scored on a 12-yard run in the 2006 game. Marshall has had a few good rushers (Ahmad Bradshaw, Darius Marshall), but has just one 100-yard game in the series, Martin Ward with 101 in 2010.
With White, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine, WVU ran for 300-plus yards against the Herd in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 games. Slaton erupted for 203 yards in the 2006 game, and he and White topped 125 the next year.
Conversely, Marshall has been held under 100 yards rushing three times, and has not topped 154. But today, the Herd might have the faster, deeper backfield, even without Tron Martinez available. Sophomore Travon Van has gotten acclimated to the college game, and the Herd has the intriguing freshman duo of Kevin Grooms and Steward Butler.
And a few more, if need be.
"This is not something normal," said JuJuan Seider, MU's running backs coach. "People think we're kidding about what we've got in the backfield; we've got as talented a group of kids as I've been around.
"I came in at West Virginia with a bunch of guys, Amos Zereoue, Alvin Swoope and Curtis Keaton, that was three. We've got six, seven guys in that room who can go play."
WVU not only owns a five-turnover advantage, but has throw just one interception - in 2008, when DeQuan Bembry foiled Brown's shot to the end zone. But WVU was ahead 21-3 on a day the Herd gained just 158 total yards.
The year the Herd won the turnover battle was not much of a victory. That was the 2010 game, when Martinez fumbled on first-and-goal at the WVU 6, Sidney Glover recovered and then Smith began his rally.
WVU owns a 47 percent conversion rate, including a 7-of-14 in the debut of the Dana Holgorsen era. Marshall lags behind at 35 percent.
So what has Marshall done well in these six losses?
Scored first (four times), thrown a few touchdown passes (21, 38, 42, 96 yards) and returned kicks well, including Andre Booker's 87-yard punt return to open the scoring last year.
And, as Holgorsen claimed this week, played harder against the Mountaineers than any other foe.
Herd coach Doc Holliday would dispute that publicly, claiming that his team "embraces every game." But with only one game left in the series and low-low-lowly Western Carolina coming up next week, one expects the Herd to embrace this game more than most.
And if that team can reverse a bad trend or two, who knows?
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.
Marshall-WVU series composite box
First downs (avg) 14.5 23.3
Rushing yards (avg) 97 223
Avg. per carry 3.3 5.5
Passing yards (avg) 174 205
Total yards (avg) 271 428
Avg yds per play 4.63 6.26
Completion pct. 56.3 73.2
Had intercepted 4 1
Fumbles-lost 19-6 10-5
Penalties-yards 38-335 32-289
Punts-avg 34-40.1 24-42.9
100 yards - Tavon Austin, WVU, kickoff return, 2011
96 - Aaron Dobson, Marshall, pass from Brian Anderson, 2010
87 - Andre Booker, Marshall, punt return, 2011
46 - Darius Reynaud, WVU, pass from Pat White, 2007
42 - Cody Slate, Marshall, pass from Bernard Morris, 2007
33 - Alric Arnett, WVU, pass from Geno Smith, 2009