Coming into the 2007 season, one could argue that Marshall's offensive and defensive lines would perhaps be the strength of Mark Snyder's third squad. Beckley native and Rimington Trophy candidate Doug Legursky anchors the Herd offensive line from his center position, and has a chance to become the second player from a Mountain State school in as many seasons to be named an All-American at that position. On the other side of the ball, defensive end Albert McClellan was looking to follow in the footsteps of Marshall d-line greats such as Girardie Mercer, Paul Toviessi, and – most recently – Jonathan Goddard.
Conventional wisdom led one to believe that the Herd could build a good, solid line on both sides around the talents of these two potential NFL players. The better the offensive line was, the better quarterback Bernie Morris and other offensive skill players could be, right? On the other side of the ball, with McClellan leading the way, Snyder's Herd defenders would be wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers, keeping the green and white competitive even in games with more talented foes such as Miami, West Virginia, and Southern Mississippi. When fall camp began, though, the cruel breaks and tough luck that comes with major Division I college football began to set in at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Both Legursky and McClellan went down in the first week of practice with knee injuries. The good news for Marshall is that Legursky has since returned, started, and was his usual productive self this past week against Miami in the Orange Bowl.
"I think Legursky's a good player," said veteran Mountaineer defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich. "I like their offensive line. They are big, and they are tough. They're going to get after you too and be very physical, more physical than (Western Michigan). We're really going to have to bring our A-game against these guys."
Defensively, the news was not so good for the Herd. Days after his injury in camp, it was announced that McClellan would be out for the season. For a defensive line already young and green (no pun intended) in terms of experience, the loss of the most talented and most battle-tested player could have been a devastating blow. With McClellan on the sidelines against Miami, the Herd was torched for 260 yards on the ground by the Hurricanes' talented duo of freshman Graig Cooper and veteran Javarris James, among others. With those types of numbers coming back to Huntington from Miami, Mountaineer fans may be dreaming up a record-breaking day for the nation's fastest backfield (of course comprised of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton).
After viewing film of the Miami game, though, first-year offensive line coach Greg Frey sees a lot of physicality and potential in the Thundering Herd's defensive front.
"They're a very good team," Frey said. "Watching them on film, you see a lot of tradition in the way the team plays. They take a lot of pride in the way they play. They're physical up front, too.
"I know they have a couple of new guys who played in that first game, and you always see the greatest step between game one and game two. They did a great job against Miami, though."
Saturday's game is likely the most anticipated in the history of Marshall football. Sure, they've played the Mountaineers before. And heck, they've played nationally ranked teams at home. But never have they played a highly-ranked West Virginia team at home, and after years of waiting for their blue and gold brethren from the North-Central part of the state to head south, the Marshall program and Huntington community will finally get their wish.
"They take a hard-nosed approach to the game," said Kirelawich. "We aren't taking this lightly by any stretch of the imagination. We know from last year how hard of a game it's going to be.
"I think this whole game is a challenge; the fact that we play at Marshall with an in-state rivalry. It's a challenge for our guys."
Of course when it comes to preparing specifically for the Herd, there is only so much that both Frey and Kirelawich can do. They only have so much film of Marshall, and so much time designed in each practice preparing for the specific sets and challenges that Marshall will present. To complement that, expect both coaches to spend plenty of time this week concentrating on improving the Mountaineers. Attention to details, fundamentals, and technique are always a big part of practice, and this week will certainly be no different.
"We have a lot of work to do as we continue to get better," Frey said after viewing film from Saturday's 62-24 win over Western Michigan. "It was good tape and for three guys who played their first games, they did pretty well. They kept battling and pushing through it. We got stopped on a third-and-three, then came back and got it on fourth down. "There were some bad things in there too," he continued. We missed some blitzes, and Pat got hit a couple of times in the third quarter on plays we're hoping to do better on in the future."
"There are always things to get better at," added the always colorful and equally insightful Kirelawich. "It's like looking at your backyard, you know? You look out at your backyard and you see it different than anyone else does. Someone else may look at your backyard and say it's beautiful. You may look at it and see a million things that need to get done."
As the Mountaineers prepare to invade the backyard of their fellow in-state competitors, the task at hand is seemingly simple: continue to improve, and don't take Marshall lightly. After all, many games are won and lost in the trenches.