Marshall Matters

West Virginia-Marshall is just now two months away, and already the match-up has produced title buying, alleged spying and dire predictions from Mountaineer fans. At least the players have yet to be baited into the mess, which is sure to increase tenfold before kickoff.

WVU appears focused on the game -- dubbed the Friends of Coal Bowl via a $140,000 gift -- more so than a typical MAC or Conference-USA tilt. It seems to sense that a loss could erase at least one team goal that's as legitimate this season as any other – and it surely grasps that though it will likely get each foe's best effort, that anything resembling half of one in the opener will be disastrous for a team making a national title charge.

It was the Mountaineers who lost crispness and focus after leading MU 28-3 in the teams' last meeting, in 1997. West Virginia trailed 31-28 before rallying late for a 42-31 win that saved face. And though Marshall had future NFL stars in Chad Pennington and Randy Moss the last time the two played, the game, to the Herd's credit, was won not via a significant athletic or talent gap between the teams' skill players, but on better line play and a few individual efforts, like Nate Terry's two interceptions that setup the go-ahead and game-clinching scores.

"I have seen them on film and they have a great running back, a good line," WVU spur safety Eric Wicks said. "They will come at you, and as far as athletic ability, they can play. They sort of throw it some more than us, but they are good. We won't take them lightly. We took East Carolina lightly last year and look what happened."

The Mountaineers failed to score in the second half and needed Antonio Lewis' punt return for a touchdown – the second time in as many seasons that West Virginia ran back a kick for a score against East Carolina – for the deciding points in an ugly 20-15 win. WVU recorded a sack on the last play of the game to avoid a Hail Mary pass that could have won the game for the Pirates.

"We have set some goals, like winning the Big East, going undefeated, playing for a national title," center Dan Mozes said. "But you have to win the first one to do that, and Marshall's the first one."

And that first one is 61 days away, already apparently too close for the hype to hold off much longer.

"You can feel it; you could feel it with the basketball team," Mozes said. "Look what happened to them. They were the better team and lost twice, so we know it can happen. We know what this means to the people of this state."

But do they know what it means for Marshall, which, truth be told, sees this as the be-all, end-all of its season? The Coal Bowl is, essentially, the Super Bowl for the Herd. Win this, and nothing else matters. Lose, and not much does, aside from perhaps a long-shot Conference USA title. Just one instance of proof is that there is a countdown clock on Marshall's official athletic site, complete with a "Rivalry Renewed" heading. West Virginia's offers info on the recent NBA draft and a feature on football guard Jeremy Sheffey building the team foundation during summer workouts.

"I know it's big for them, but it's big for us, too," said WVU linebacker Mark Magro, a Morgantown native. "I don't know if it's fair to say it is bigger than Pitt, or any conference game, but any game is big time for us this year. We're trying to do big things. Pitt is really big for the people around here (northern part of the state). But Marshall will be big for the whole state. Everyone will watch this."

Perhaps the best judge of the fervor is backup safety Aaron Meckstroth, who played high school football at Spring Valley, in Huntington. He grew up a Marshall fan and received walk-on offers from both schools, but chose West Virginia because of the family atmosphere and the coaches.

"A lot of my friends do go (to Marshall), so it will be exciting," he said. "It's a big game both places, and I'm just glad I get to play them. I was worried it would not happen until next year."

Meckstroth's father, Rick, played at Marshall and was a freshman on the 1970 team that was involved in the infamous Nov. 14 plane crash – the greatest air tragedy in the history of collegiate athletics – that killed 75 people on a return trip from a game at East Carolina. Rick was not on the flight because freshmen were not eligible at that time, but he was part of the rebuilding that began the following season. He is an extra in the movie, "We Are Marshall."

"All this really adds to the atmosphere," Mozes said. "And as opposed to an easy opening game, this should be a great atmosphere here, and we will have extra motivation."

Said Wicks: "We know they are the secondary school, and if they were to beat us it would be very bad. We have big plans for this year. But they are a very, very good team."

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