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Expectations achieved

Chris Dorst
Marshall coach Doc Holliday (background) can only watch helplessly as WVU's Tavon Austin sprints past MU's Okechukwu Okoroha for a 70-yard gain.
Chris Dorst 1994 WVU graduate Bill Stefanko of Hamilton, N.J., helps celebrate a fourth-quarter Mountaineer touchdown against Marshall's Thundering Herd.
Chris Dorst West Virginia State Police troopers form up in the end zone during a first-quarter timeout as two comrades killed in the line of duty last week were honored at Mountaineer Field. A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. today in the Charleston Civic Center.

MORGANTOWN - Geno Smith was talking one day this summer about expectations and how difficult they might be to fulfill for West Virginia's football team.

After all, he said, that 70-33 win over Clemson in January's Orange Bowl was in a lot of ways a fluke. Teams just don't routinely throw up points on a scoreboard like that.

"The only negative,'' he said, "was now they'll expect us to score 70 every game.''

On Saturday, the Mountaineers proved that's not always possible. But on this day it was only because Tyler Bitancurt isn't always perfect.

West Virginia's offense picked up right where it left off in Miami, the defense did pretty much exactly what was expected of it - giving up a ton of yards but making up for it by forcing turnovers - and the Mountaineers put an emphatic exclamation point on the end of their series with Marshall with a 69-34 rout of the Herd.

Yes, West Virginia's 12th win in 12 games against MU - played in front of a crowd of 59,120 at Mountaineer Field - was just as easy as the score indicates. That's because the offense lived up to virtually all of those ridiculous expectations.

"I don't want to say anything too early, but I think we did a great job today,'' said Smith, the senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate who did nothing to diminish his preseason hype, throwing for four touchdowns and running for another. "I think I was able to mix it up a little, spread it around and guys were making plays.

"But, like I said, it's only Game 1 and we can improve so much from here.''

Well, yes, there are certainly areas in which the Mountaineers can improve. In fact, coach Dana Holgorsen referred to them generally first in his postgame remarks.

"I don't know how it looked from where y'all were sitting,'' Holgorsen said, sounding more West Virginia than he probably ever has, "but there's a whole bunch of things we have to work on.''

But without getting overly picky - which Holgorsen certainly will - offense isn't one of those things.

The Mountaineers piled up 655 total yards, split them almost evenly between rushing (331) and passing (324), didn't turn the ball over and scored on nine of the 10 possessions played by the starters.

Smith was as close to perfect as might be possible. He completed 32 of 36 passes for 323 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran the ball eight times for 65 yards and accounted for his fifth touchdown when he ran 28 yards on a broken play.

In his last two games, Smith is 64 of 79 for 730 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ended his career against Marshall 105 of 137 for 1,035 yards, eight touchdowns and no picks.

Even Holgorsen admitted he's never seen anything quite like what Smith did Saturday, not just passing, but from a quarterbacking standpoint.

"He managed the game as well as anybody I've ever been around,'' said Holgorsen, whose past quarterbacks include Graham Harrell, Case Keenum and Brandon Weeden.

This was far from a one-man show, though. Tavon Austin caught 10 passes and was pretty much bottled on those, gaining just 53 yards - the little tip passes he scored on four times against Clemson went nowhere - but he ran an end-around 70 yards and then stayed in the game and caught two straight passes to score, accounting for all 83 yards in a three-play drive. He finished with 173 all-purpose yards.

Stedman Bailey also picked right up where he left off last season, catching nine passes for 104 yards, his eighth 100-yard game, one shy of David Saunders' school record. His first touchdown pretty much set the tone when he leaped and caught a 32-yarder from Smith in the end zone.

And then there was the running game, which figured to be better but nothing like this. Shawne Alston was relentless in running through tacklers and gained 123 yards. Andrew Buie not only added 80 more rushing yards, but also caught four passes. And Smith had eight carries for those 65 yards, more carries than he had in any game last year and more yards than he's ever had.

"That's about as balanced as you can possibly be,'' Holgorsen said. "And it starts with the guys up front. They played as well as they have since I've been here.''

But as good as the offense was, there were areas of concern elsewhere. Marshall ran a staggering 101 plays and gained 545 yards. The Herd controlled the ball for 33 minutes and completed 38 passes (in 56 attempts).

But in truth, that can be overcome by an offense that scores even more and a defense that creates turnovers. The Mountaineers on Saturday not only forced two turnovers, they pretty much scored with both. Terence Garvin sacked Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and forced a fumble that Isaiah Bruce - who also had 16 tackles - returned 43 yards for a touchdown. Later, linebacker Doug Rigg intercepted a pass and ran it back to the MU 3 to set up an easy score.

"They played hard. They gave up some plays, but they also got two turnovers,'' Holgorsen said of his defense. "As far as how many yards we gave up, I'm not going to worry about that.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

 


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