After nearly a month away from home, West Virginia – losers of two consecutive games for the first time since 2004 and sporting a losing record for the first time since 2003 – was back inside the friendly confines of Milan Puskar Stadium.
Riding a dominant defensive performance and balanced productivity on offense, West Virginia (2-2) rolled with relative ease to a 27-3 victory over visiting Marshall (3-2) in the third annual Friends of Coal Bowl.
"I really enjoyed this game today," said first-year WVU head coach Bill Stewart. "We improved. We got some things ironed out, but we have a long way to go. We have a chance to be a good team, though."
After scoring just 17 points combined in road losses to East Carolina and Colorado, West Virginia's offense looks to have turned things around for the time being. Problems that haunted the Mountaineers at Colorado, namely an inability to convert short yardage plays on third down, were nowhere to be found, thanks in no small part to a bit of creativity from Stewart and the offensive coaching staff.
Looking for a big body with the ability to run between the tackles and get the tough yards, Stewart inserted junior quarterback Jarrett Brown and his 6-4, 220-pound frame as a Tim Tebow-like force in the shotgun. Brown, lining up at running back, quarterback, and even receiver, delivered on cue, totaling 78 yards on eight carries.
Complementing Brown's bullish downhill running style was flashy sophomore Noel Devine, who notched his second-consecutive 100-yard game with 125 yards on 14 carries. Devine's first-quarter touchdown was his first of the season, and opened the scoring for West Virginia.
Several of Devine's runs were of the ankle-breaking "did that just happen/how did he do that" variety as the diminutive sophomore was able to stop on a dime, reverse field and outrun the entire Marshall defense on more than one occasion.
In all, the Mountaineers tallied 319 yards on the ground.
Through the air, quarterback Patrick White had his best game since throwing five touchdowns in the season-opener against Villanova. White was 17-21 for 130 yards and touchdown strikes to Jock Sanders (eight catches, 60 yards) and Dorrell Jalloh (two catches, 32 yards).
One week after going three-of-13 on third down conversion attempts at Colorado, West Virginia improved to eight-of-13. Some of that was due to Brown, but more overall consistency in the offensive line was a big source for West Virginia's offensive production throughout the game.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineer defense continues to improve week-to-week. All week, Stewart lauded Marshall's passing game, led by redshirt freshman Mark Cann, speedy receiver Darius Passmore and talented tight end Cody Slate.
Cann struggled mightily, completing just 15 of his 36 attempts for 119 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Passmore was held to 29 yards on four catches, while Slate hauled in three passes for 40 yards.
Against the run, WVU was even more dominant, holding the Thundering Herd to just 39 yards on 25 attempts.
"I was surprised we couldn't run on them," said fourth-year Marshall coach Mark Snyder. "Credit their defense. It was hard to sustain drives against them."
The Mountaineers also buckled down in the red zone. Marshall moved inside the WVU 20 yardline four times, and came away with just one score, a 34-yard field goal by freshman Tyler Warner in the first half.
"We knew there were some things we had to do that we didn't do against Colorado last week," said senior linebacker Reed Williams (game-high 11 tackles). "We really stepped up and really sunk our feet in the ground. We didn't let them in (to the end zone)."
The defense also came up with turnovers on three consecutive Marshall possessions, leading to 10 West Virginia points.
"Every time something good happened, we shot ourselves in the foot," said Snyder, now 0-3 against West Virginia. "It was a bad day to make a bunch of mistakes. Credit WVU: they had their backs up against the wall and did what they had to do."
What the Mountaineers had to do was show marked improvement from the aforementioned losses at East Carolina and Colorado. On both sides of the ball, they certainly did, be it the improved play of the veteran offensive line or the growth of a young secondary which looks to be coming into its own.
Just about the only thing West Virginia did not execute well against the Thundering Herd was kickoff coverage. Marshall returned six kickoffs for an average of nearly 40 yards, including two long returns by sophomore running back Darius Marshall.
Stewart, who serves as his own special teams coordinator, was livid after the game when talking about his team's poor kickoff coverage.
"I'm so frustrated about the kickoff return that I won't be able to sleep tonight," Stewart said. "That is our pride and joy. We've led the conference the last five years in kickoff return. I just do not understand that. I've got to watch the film.
"Special teams I could just jump off the top of this building," he continued. "There's not a building tall enough in Morgantown to keep me from jumping off over the kickoff team. We will meet tomorrow, you have my word. The kickoff is going to meet with me and me alone. Every coach will leave the building and every player that isn't on the kickoff team will leave the building. I'm going to find 11 guys, or 10 who will run in there and smack somebody in the mouth."
For the most part, though, it was West Virginia who did the smacking on Saturday in Morgantown. And with Big East bottom-dwellers Rutgers and Syracuse visiting Milan Puskar Stadium in the next two weeks before the long-anticipated Thursday night home matchup with Auburn on October 24, Saturday's victory could be just the spark that the Mountaineers needed to get back on track as the season enters its next phase.
"I promised the team would do better," Stewart said, "and the team did a great job."