The last time West Virginia visited Marshall, the Mountaineers cruised to one of the biggest blowouts in school history. Perhaps they felt that this trip to Huntington would result in a similar affair. It did not, but the Mountaineers still escaped Joan C. Edwards Stadium with a 48-23 victory in front of Marshall-record 40,383 fans.
For Marshall, Saturday's game was the biggest in school history. The crowd stood on its feet as the ball was kicked, and was rewarded by freshman Darius Marshall's 77-yard return on the game's opening play. Though the Marshall offense could not completely capitalize, Mark Snyder's team did gain it's first lead over West Virginia since 1997 with a 32-yard Anthony Binswanger field goal.
For much of the first half, it looked as though the Thundering Herd wanted this win more than third-ranked West Virginia. Marshall quarterback Bernard Morris picked apart the Mountaineer secondary for 136 yards on 10-17 passing, including a perfectly-executed 38-yard touchdown pass to aptly-named wideout Darius Passmore.
Save for a 46-yard touchdown pass to Darius Reynaud, the Mountaineers were out-played, out-hustled, and out-coached during the game's first 30 minutes. Offensively, the speedy duo of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton were held to a combined 47 yards on the ground, with White responsible for 45 of those yards. Just as Western Michigan did a week ago, the Herd sold out on stopping Slaton. Reynaud's touchdown made Marshall pay once, but for whatever reason the blue and gold seemed reluctant to go downfield more often as the greenies sent eight and sometimes nine defenders to the line of scrimmage.
Defensively, things weren't much better. The Mountaineers played a solid first quarter, but gave up a few key third down conversions in the second quarter. Herd offensive coordinator Larry Kueck threw a steady mix of passes and runs at the Mountaineers, keeping the defenders off-balance. The half culminated with Binswanger's 26-yard field goal as time expired to give the home team a 13-6 lead over their in-state rival.
"This is the best first half we've played since I've been here, and that's what it takes to beat that team or whoever it is that you play," Marshall coach Mark Snyder said.
"Nobody was panicking," said seventh-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, now 2-0 against Marshall.
"I didn't scream and yell at the half... We just had to make adjustments."
Rodriguez and his staff did exactly that, coming out with a more downhill running game to start the third quarter. On its opening drive of the half, West Virginia looked to be playing with more of a purpose, though not a sense of hesitation or panic. Slaton and White both began to pick up yardage in larger chunks, which opened up Reynaud for his second touchdown of the game, this time on a 23-yard screen pass in which he displayed both the power to break tackles, and the speed to run away from defenders.
"They went from finesse football to power football and wore us down," Snyder said.
Marshall again answered the challenge, but had to settle for another Binswanger kick. As the third quarter wore on, Marshall began to wear down. The Mountaineers continued their power-running attack and took back the lead for good on Pat White's 20 yard touchdown run with 6:26 remaining in the third.
On the very next play from scrimmage, junior linebacker Reed Williams poked the ball out of Darius Marshall's hands, and senior transfer Ryan Mundy pounced on the pigskin, and by doing so also took away the best chance for a Thundering Herd upset.
"I told the team whoever blinks first is probably the team that is going to lose," Snyder said, "and we blinked."
"We really needed that," Mundy said. "That's what the defense had been talking about on the sideline. We needed to get a turnover. We preach running to the ball. When you run to the ball, good things will happen for you."
Six plays later, Slaton was into the end zone for his first of two touchdowns. Although the Thundering Herd would answer with 42 yard touchdown pass to Cody Slate, the Mountaineer offense was already rolling. Slate's touchdown was too little, too late for Marshall.
White, Slaton, and freshman tailback Noel Devine combined in the fourth quarter to run out the clock and run over the home team. Slaton finished with 146 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. In the second half, the junior Heisman Trophy candidate tallied 140 yards. In addition to that, Slaton became the third back in West Virginia history to go over the 3,000 yard plateau, joining Amos Zereoue and Avon Cobourne.
The other half of West Virginia's Heisman-hopeful duo finished with 125 yards rushing, 149 yards passing, and three total touchdowns. Much of his passing went to Reynaud, who caught eight passes for a career-high 126 yards and the two scores. Devine added 76 yards and two touchdowns on just five carries, and returned two kicks for 46 yards to finish with 122 total yards.
Morris led Marshall with 256 yards through the air, though he was hobbled by an injured right ankle in the second half. Darius Marshall totaled 80 yards on 11 carries, but his third quarter fumble ultimately proved to be the pivotal mistake for Marshall.
Without a doubt, the Thundering Herd gave West Virginia a better shot than most – if not everybody – expected. One of the trademarks of a champion is the ability to take a punch but keep on fighting. West Virginia took Marshall's best shot on Saturday. They responded, moving to 7-0 all-time against the Herd, while keeping the ultimate goal in 2007 alive and well.