By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In many ways it was the tipoff on what was to come throughout the season, the night West Virginia University went to Marshall and almost lost.
While the evening wound up in a wild celebration of an improbable comeback that began when WVU was down 15 points with Marshall sitting on the Mountaineer 4, about to go in with a fourth-quarter touchdown that would surely clinch the upset, only to fumble the ball away.
It was that untimely fumble by a freshman running back making his first carry of the game that turned the ball over to Geno Smith and the Mountaineers which saved the day, Smith finally finding a solution and rallying WVU to two touchdowns and two-point conversion in less than nine minutes, setting up a 24-21 overtime victory.
In a way the events of that night in Huntington should have ignited West Virginia to a magnificent season, but that there was something internally wrong became evident in that game. Instead of a Big East championship and a BCS bowl bid that seemed almost certain, WVU scuffled to a nine-victory season and a minor bowl as head coach Bill Stewart was ultimately forced out and Dana Holgorsen hired.
As Holgorsen began studying the film of Marshall for this year’s opener, he made a discovery he wasn’t looking for.
He was trying to acquaint himself with Marshall’s offensive and defensive schemes, with the Herd’s personnel and coach Doc Holliday’s coaching tendencies, but as he zeroes in on the game against WVU he was somewhat astounded to see that this rivalry game did not get the emotion bubbling and juices flowing for WVU.
“One thing that was glaring in our game last year was who was more excited to play and who was playing with more effort,” Holgorsen said during his weekly press conference. “It was evident who was playing with more excitement and enthusiasm. It was obvious.”
How this happens, no one knows. If they did, it wouldn’t happen any longer, for surely a coach would take countermeasures.
Why it happens … that’s a different story. WVU was on the road, in hostile territory, against a team playing for a new coach with every emotional angle working in its favor. They were underdogs; they had never won in the rivalry.
They had everything to gain, nothing to lose, while it was exactly the other way for West Virginia.
That, in many ways speaks to why the Mountaineers never really wanted this rivalry and why it will soon die a quiet death without anyone weeping in Morgantown.
When Holgorsen first met with his players this week to begin preparations for Marshall, he made sure that he got across to them what he had discovered in film study. He would have all week to note where the Herd offense likes to run the ball on third-and-2 and which of the defensive backs will bite on a hook-and-go pattern.
First order was to see that this game had the proper meaning, although this time it would be in Morgantown and WVU would have the advantage of playing for a new coach.
He had to be sure that they would not take Marshall as just another opening patsy from a non-BCS conference, but as dangerous as a … well, as a Thundering Herd is to a lone cowboy out on the plains from which he came.
Geno Smith, the quarterback who saved the night but not the season, understands what transpired.
“It was clear to see, we came out flat and they made plays early, but we fought back and that’s really all that matters,” he said.
And if he would be given credit for the comeback, Smith also was willing to take his share of the blame.
“One hundred percent of my job is to make sure we come out ready and focused. My job is to be the facilitator, to make sure guys do what they are supposed to do. It’s something I take pride in, and I’m going to do better at that this year than I did last year,” he said.
There are reasons to believe he will, the most being that he has been a starting quarterback for a year now. Far more likely to be unable to kick-start his team is Marshall’s freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato, who was named to start in his first collegiate game.
Smith’s ability to lead the comeback victory served a purpose, although it wasn’t what you may think it was.
“I don’t think it helped my confidence as much as it helped my understanding of the game and showed me that you are never out of it. No matter how much time is left on the scoreboard, no matter how many points down, you can always come back. You just have to fight back and believe,” he said.
Most of the Mountaineers seem dedicated to putting forth a huge effort in the opener.
“Every year they say this is Marshall’s Super Bowl. That’s their goal, to beat West Virginia. We can’t let them do that and will do everything we can to not let that happen,” said center Joey Madsen.
“We can’t let Marshall come in a push us around,” added slot receiver Tavon Austin. “Last year we took them lightly. They are not a bad team. They are a good team. We just have to be ready.”
“This is their Super Bowl. They will come out fast. We have to match them. We gotta mash them,” said defensive end Bruce Irvin, who will be starting his first game as a full-time player rather than just a pass rusher.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.