Let the rivalry begin

West Virginia University coach Rich Rodriguez (left) and Marshall coach Mark Snyder pose with the Friends of Coal Bowl trophy Friday on the eve of today’s 3:30 p.m. football game between the state’s two NCAA Division I-A team at Milan Puskar Stadium/Mountaiineer Field.

To say the football series between West Virginia University and Marshall has been sporadic would be a great understatement.

There have been only five games between the schools in history and only one since 1923 — a 42-31 WVU win here in 1997.

Starting today, the opportunity to build a real, on-field rivalry between West Virginia’s NCAA Division I-A football teams begins.

Fifth-ranked WVU and Marshall meet in a 3:30 p.m. game at Milan Puskar Stadium/Mountaineer Field in front of a sellout crowd of 60,000 and an ESPN Regional television audience. The “Friends of Coal Bowl” is the first in a seven-game series — at least four of them to be played here — that runs through 2012.

The Mountaineers, coming off an 11-1 year capped by a 38-35 victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, enter the season with high expectations.

“It’s neat to be part of a program that we thought could maybe make it to the top 10 every year,” coach Rich Rodriguez said.

“You never know for sure. The nice part about what we have going on right now is that our work is not complete. I think we’re going to have a very good team again if we stay healthy. More than anything, we have the pieces in place to have a successful program. ... We’ve never been interested in building a team. We’ve always been interested in building a program.

“When you build a program, maybe you’ll dip a little bit, but you won’t dip too much. You’ll always be up there.”

Strong programs, the coach continued, lead to the chance to have exceptional records.

“Last year, when we had a good year, it was a surprise to a lot of people,” he said. “It wasn’t really a surprise to us at WVU in the football department because we knew what was going on and how we were building the program.”

Can WVU repeat the success of a year ago?

“Everybody is counting on it,” Rodriguez said with a grin. “You have to be lucky, and you have to have a lot of things go your way.”

WVU has not lost in its series with Marshall. The first four, before WVU’s 1997 victory when West Fairmont graduate Chad Wable caught what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass from Marc Bulger after the Thundering Herd had rallied from a 28-3 deficit to a 31-28 fourth-quarter lead, were in 1911 (WVU 17, MU 15), 1914 (WVU 20, MU 0), 1915 (WVU 92, MU 6) and 1923 (WVU 81, MU 0).

The current series will continue after today with the following WVU-MU games: Sept. 8, 2007, in Huntington; Sept. 13, 2008, in Morgantown; Oct. 3, 2009, to be determined (winner of at least two of the first three games); Sept. 11, 2010, in Huntington; Sept. 3, 2011, in Morgantown; and Sept. 1, 2012, in Morgantown.

E-mail Cliff Nichols at cnichols@timeswv.com.

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