Conversations From The Car

I want to start this week with a note to Marshall fans. Please quit complaining. For seven or eight years you have been running your mouths about what The Herd would do to the Mountaineers if they got a chance to play.

Your president held press conferences on the capital steps, your school erected trash-talking billboards in the heart of Mountaineer Country and Marshall officials went as far as to get the governor involved in mandating a series. You finally got your wish, and now you want to complain that WVU ran up the score, the fans in Morgantown were not nice to the visitors from Huntington and you don't want to hear any more jokes from the West Virginia faithful about the 42-10 trouncing. In my eyes you deserve every bit of it. You asked for the series, and now you got it. Take what is coming to you and stop complaining.

* * *

Now that I have that speech out of the way, I want to address our own fans. In the days following the Friends of Coal Bowl, I have hear very little about West Virginia's rushing dominance, only a few comments here and there about the improvement in the passing game and I have yet to hear one mention of the great atmosphere in Morgantown last Saturday. The only thing Mountaineer fans want to talk about, it seems, is how West Virginia needs to make some improvements in its pass defense if it hopes to live up to all of the preseason hype.

I want to see the Mountaineers succeed as much as any fan, and I also am well aware that you cannot just be satisfied with a win and ignore the problems. But we have to be realistic in our evaluations.

Yes, Jeff Casteel's defense gave up some yardage in the passing game and at times it had trouble getting off the field on third down, but before criticizing the secondary a deeper look into the situation is necessary. Putting the numbers aside and taking a look at the game itself, it becomes clear that WVU's pass defense was really not that bad at all.

Marshall gained just two first downs on its first four possessions of the game, and at the end of the first quarter the boys in green had just eight yards passing. West Virginia, on the other hand, was moving the ball almost at will, and when the Mountaineers took a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, Marshall's Bernie Morris had only 34 yards passing to his credit.

At that point in the game, MU was able to start moving the ball through the air. Morris threw for 61 yards on The Herd's first touchdown drive of the game, and a circus catch in the end zone capped off the drive in fine fashion. West Virginia did not panic, however, and it went back down the field and scored to take a 28-7 lead into the half. Marshall, at that point, had just 95 yards through the air with 61 of those coming on one drive.

Any yardage put up after that point can almost be ignored. No, WVU was not letting the visitors do whatever they wished on offense, but with a big lead and an offense that could not be stopped, the Mountaineer coaches knew that the only way Marshall could come back was with big plays, The goal on defense was to keep everything in front of them, make Morris and company burn some clock and make sure Marshall had to work for any more points on the board.

The Marshall offense took advantage of this strategy to dink and dunk its way down the field at times, but it would only find three more points, and by avoiding a big play WVU cruised to the 32-point win.

I am not saying the Mountaineers can keep allowing teams everything over the middle and let opposing quarterbacks pick them apart with short passing games, but we have to keep in mind the fact that defensive strategy with a 21-point cushion is very different than it is in a tie ballgame.

* * *

Those West Virginia fans that were not expressing their worries about the pass defense were complaining about the polls and the fact that the Mountaineers fell one spot in the AP voting after such a convincing win. "Here we go again," seemed to be the sentiment expressed by every WVU fan I encountered after the polls were released.

Although I do not agree that USC's win over Arkansas was enough to prove that the Trojans are back, I am not ready to hit the panic button just yet. There is still plenty of football to be played. The five teams ahead of West Virginia in the rankings all have a very difficult schedule ahead, and I would not be completely shocked if none of them finished the year without a loss. Either Ohio State or Texas is going to lose this week, as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams meet in a critical week two battle. USC still has five ranked teams left on its slate, and without Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart it is not likely to making through that gauntlet without a loss. Notre Dame, tied with Auburn for the fourth spot, still has Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and USC left on its schedule, while Auburn will have to get past LSU, Florida, Georgia and a couple other SEC powers if it hopes to make it through the regular season without a blemish.

I don't like seeing the Mountaineers fall either, but if West Virginia can take care of the business at hand, everything else is likely to work itself out.

* * *

Perhaps the most welcome sight of the weekend was watching the almighty Atlantic Coast conference fall flat on its face.

For a long while after the ACC's midnight raid, which took Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College away from the Big East, it looked as though the only major football conference in the Northeast would be left to the wolves. West Virginia eliminated some of that chatter with a win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last season, proving that the Big East could compete on the Bowl Championship Series stage, but the revitalization of the conference was made official during the first week of the 2006 season.

In case you missed it, the Big East finished 7-1 in week one and posted a 2-1 record over their counterparts from the ACC. Rutgers downed North Carolina 21-16, and Pitt routed Virginia 38-13. Only Wake Forest from the ACC scored a win over a Big East opponent, knocking off the league's bottom team, Syracuse, 20-10.

The Big East also scored wins over Conference USA, when West Virginia defeated Marshall, and the SEC, when Louisville bested Kentucky 59-28 in the Bluegrass State battle. It was a great day for the rebuilt conference, which proved it belongs among the BCS competitors.

The invaders, on the other hand, did not fare so well. The ACC put up an overall record of 6-4 against non-conference foes in week one, but it was just 1-3 against schools from the traditional BCS conferences. Wake Forest's victory was the lone bright spot for the conference in those games, as Georgia Tech, 14-10 losers at home against Notre Dame, North Carolina and Virginia all came up short. There were a couple of scares against non-BCS schools as well, as Boston College only squeaked by Central Michigan, winning 31-24, and Maryland struggled to pull away against 1-AA William and Mary, eventually winning 27-14.

Duke had to be the most embarrassing story of the day for the reconfigured ACC, however, as the Blue Devils failed to score against 1-AA Richmond, losing 13-0 to the Spiders.

The raid may have looked great on paper, but the Big East has proven it will not go away that easily.

* * *

Finally, I want to get sappy for just a moment and send out a reminder to the WVU faithful. The worries I mentioned above — the AP rankings, the pass defense and the national respect — all come very naturally, but this is a time when we need to sit back and smell the roses.

For once, we can turn on ESPN's Gameday and be assured that we will hear mention of our Mountaineers. WVU players' individual accomplishments, like Slaton's 203-yard rushing performance, are no longer being ignored in favor of lesser performances from players from schools like Notre Dame and Florida State and for the first time since Beano Cook's prediction prior to the 1988 season, there are actually national media members giving West Virginia a chance to play in the National Championship — although I am not sure if hearing those words out of Lee Corso's mouth is a blessing or a curse.

This is what we have all been waiting for, and it is hard to say how long it will last. While we are on top, we need to take time to step back, enjoy the view and realize how lucky we are. There are only a handful of teams out there experiencing what we are right now. Whether West Virginia makes all of our dreams come true by winning the school's first national title or the men in old gold and blue come up a little short, it is still a great time to be a Mountaineer.

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