Friends of Coal Bowl III Pits MU-WVU Saturday

The Friends of Coal Bowl III is set for Saturday, Sept. 27, at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va. This game, the fourth since 1997 between Marshall and West Virginia (and the eighth all-time), is a little different than the games recently. For one, Marshall is 3-1 to start the season and coming off a huge victory at Southern Miss. WVU is 1-2, having fallen out of the Top 25 with two losses.

Normally, the Marshall-West Virginia match-ups have come very early in the season. The 1997 and 2005 meetings were the opening games of the season for both teams, while last year's game was the second of the season but the first to be played in Huntington since 1915 (and only second ever in seven meetings). The focus of the summer was on the MU-WVU meeting, in papers, on-line and on the radio by fans on both sides. While the stakes remain the same going into the game - bragging rights in-state for the next year - the fervor has been reduced by Marshall coming quickly out of the blocks and West Virginia stalling over the past two road games to free-fall from a pre-season No. 8 ranking to the "Also receiving votes" category with losses at East Carolina, out of Herd's league Conference USA, and an overtime loss at Colorado last Thursday on national television.

The problem for West Virginia has perhaps been unrealistic pre-season predictions. The Mountaineers lost seven starters on defense from last year's Fiesta Bowl win, and did not get Reed Williams back until last week's game with the Buffaloes. On offense, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt and Darius Reynaud accounted for about 60 percent of the scoring and all moved on to professional careers. Replacing the bruising Schmitt, whose blocking was key to the running backs, along with no standout receiver to step up for Reynaud, who had two touchdowns against MU last year, have left the bulk of the offense to quarterback Pat White and running back Noel Devine. The program also underwent a huge change since losing to Pitt, losing a shot at the national championship and losing former head coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan to be replaced by Bill Stewart.

Marshall last year was a M*A*S*H unit, disguised as a football team. Albert McClellan missed the whole season at defensive end, while John Jacobs, Montel Glasco and others along the front seven missed significant time until late in the year. The offense had injuries to center Doug Legursky and tackle John Inman, as well as injuries to quarterback Bernard Morris that hindered the Herd until health returned to lead to three wins in the final five games. Marshall has, since scoring the upset win over East Carolina last year, won six of its last nine games. MU head coach Mark Snyder also shook up his staff with new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a new defensive line coach, and so far the moves seems to be paying off.

The Herd can expect to find an angry, fired-up WVU team and crowd, for that matter, having lost two games in a row for the first time in seven years. Marshall, however, broke a nine-game road losing streak last week at Southern Miss in a driving rain storm, and also broke a three-game losing streak to the Golden Eagles. Let's look at each team.

Darius Marshall looked for running room against West Virginia, and he started the game with a 70-yard plus kickoff return. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff

Marshall offense versus West Virginia defense: Marshall could not score in the first quarter, and didn't score very much in the other periods last year, but three things have changed all of that. Quarterback Mark Cann has only been sacked twice in four games, and has shown maturity beyond his second season in college. The red-shirt freshman is hitting 54 percent of his passes for 824 yards and five touchdowns against just three interceptions, one in the opener and two at Wisconsin. Darius Passmore leads the nation in receiving yards and the Herd with 18.2 yards per catch and four touchdowns. Darius Marshall is 12th in the nation in rushing with 104.2 yards per game, two 100-plus games the last two weeks and four touchdowns. The 'X' factor last week, however, was the return of tight end Cody Slate. Out since early against Illinois State, the All-American had four catches for 76 yards, a touchdown and 35 yards on the seldom seen tight end around.

WVU is sixth in the Big East in total defense, giving up nearly 400 yards per game, 229 yards to the pass and 154 yards on the ground, although they have allowed just 20.7 points per game, third in the league. The 3-3-5 defense is a different look than most teams use, and the return of Williams bolstered the team against Colorado, allowing only a field goal after the early success of CU. The unit starts two sophomores on the front three, one sophomore linebacker and a red-shirt freshman and sophomore in the secondary, with four seniors, and may actually be younger than the Herd's defense.

Marshall will test stretching the field against West Virginia, who has allowed 688 yards to three teams, and if you double Passmore that more often than not leads single coverage on Slate or Bryant Milligan, who has seven catches on the year out of the slot. Emmanuel Spann is also dependable across the middle and E.J. Wynn and Courtney Edmonson also bring speed. Advantage: Marshall.

Darius Passmore (wearing No. 88 last season) hauled in a touchdown pass to give Marshall a 10-6 lead early in the game against WVU in 2007. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff

WVU offense verses MU defense: White is the guy that makes the engine run for the Mountaineers, but look for Marshall to follow the Colorado plan by stacking the box and taking away the run. White can do as much damage on a broken play as he does in the set offense, and MU's Snyder calls the senior quarterback the "most explosive player in college football." Devine and White each rushed for a 100-yards plus last week, but the big problem has been third down conversions., where WVU is only 12-of-34 in three games. The offensive line has four seniors and a junior, but has not lived up to pre-season hype that ranked them as the nation's best in one pre-season magazine. The leading receivers in the passing game have been Jock Sanders, a slot or running back, and Devine. While White is hitting 71 percent of his passes, West Virginia only has one receiver, Alric Arnett, who is averaging double figures per catch at 15.0 yards per reception, and the team average is 6.8, just one yard better than the rushing 5.8 per play.

Cody Slate ran 42 yards after the catch for this touchdown in the third quarter against West Virginia. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff

To say Marshall's defense is different is to say day is different from night. Up front, McClellan, Jacobs, Ian Hoskins and Vinny Curry all share time at the ends while James Burkes, from Capital H.S. in Charleston, Delvin Johnson, Michael Janac and Johnny Jones are all getting reps at tackle. Marshall has a linebacker rotation, but will start Maurice Kitchens in the middle and he is the leading tackler. Outside, the will is Mario Harvey and the sam is probably Andre Portis or Kellen Harris, although look for Brandon Burns on third and five or more in a blitzing situation. MU's secondary is headed up by seniors C.J. Spillman at strong safety and Aaron Johnson at the nickel, with the return of Ashton Hall at free after missing two games. Red-shirt corners T.J. Drakeford and DeQuan Bembry led the Herd in tackles last week, and MU broke up 12 passes against Memphis. Marshall has held the four teams they have played this year 100 yards under their average in all other games, and will look to slow the Mountaineer rush and force the pass. Advantage: push, which would satisfy Snyder just fine.

Special Teams: Pat McAfee is one of the nation's top punters, up for the Ray Guy award. He averages 44.3 yards per punt on 14 punts, with one touchback, six fair catches and eight downed inside the 20-yard line. He is 3-for-4 on field goals, but hit the upright against Colorado in overtime, reminding WVU fans of his missing two chip shots that cost the Mountaineers in the 13-9 loss to Pitt. Marshall's Kase Whitehead does not amaze anyone with a 38.7 yard average, but has had only two returned for just 19 yards. He has 23 punts, just one touchback and has downed 11 punts inside the 20 while having another 11 fair caught. Marshall's two kickers, junior Craig Rantanamore (who missed last week with a groin pull) and true frosh Tyler Warner, from Parkersburg are perfect. Three-for-three on field goals and 13-of-13 on extra-points. So far, the Herd has held opponents to just 17.9 yards per kick return and averages 21.1, while WVU both averages and gives up 24 yards per KOR. Sanders and Chubb Small both average about 21 yards per return. Snyder is looking to equal WVU, so advantage: push.

Marshall had WVU on the ropes last season in Huntington, leading 13-7 at half and trailing just 27-23 at the end of three before Schmitt and Slaton began driving the ball between the tackles and through the ineffective defensive front of the Herd for about 5-to-6 yards per rush. Marshall, who gave up about 4.9 yards per rush last year, is just allowing 3.3 per rush this year and has held backs like P.J. Hill of Wisconsin (53 yards) and Damion Fletcher of Southern Miss (82 yards) way below their averages. Look for a low scoring affair, with a Marshall win, 31-28, on a late score by WVU to make the game appear closer than it really was, much like the Memphis and Southern Miss wins for the Herd this year.

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