Huntington We Have a Problem

  • By Jed Drening
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  • August 31, 2012 11:55 AM
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MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller

Late last week we lost a genuine American icon with the death of Neil Armstrong, 82, the first man on the moon.

As commander of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, more than 500 million television viewers worldwide watched Armstrong and company take us to places we had never been. When Armstrong emerged from the lunar module to take that unforgettable first step, mankind was forever changed.

This week, it’s the West Virginia University football team that is preparing to take a giant leap into unknown territory. Like Armstrong’s legendary waltz on the moon, the Mountaineers journey into its first season as a Big 12 member also begins with “one small step.”

Milan Puskar Stadium has played host to no fewer than seven Big East championship teams, but when West Virginia and Marshall tee it up Saturday that won’t matter. The new Big 12 Conference logos adorning the turf in Morgantown will quickly shake us with the reminder that a new era of WVU football is upon us – and we’re starting from scratch.

As the 2012 Friends of Coal Bowl looms large, here are a few of the things filling my grey matter.

- Marshall hasn’t won a road opener since a 13-10 victory at Clemson in 1999.

- In seven season openers as an OC or Head Coach, Dana Holgorsen’s quarterbacks have thrown 29 touchdown passes against just one interception (in 330 attempts)

- In his career at Milan Puskar Stadium, Geno Smith has tossed 37 touchdowns versus just seven interceptions.

- After Marshall struck first blood with Andre Booker’s 87-yard punt return in last year’s Friends of Coal Bowl, the Mountaineers – in their first game running Holgorsen’s offense – outscored the Herd 34-6 the rest of the way in what proved to be a game cut short by lightning.

- As a playcaller, Holgorsen now has a streak of 23 consecutive games without a 500-yard passing effort by his offense. This is easily the longest such “drought” of his career. How much longer can this streak persist? Something tells me it won’t survive September – and it might not survive Saturday.

- Led by Daryyl Roberts and Monterius Lovett, Marshall returns a number of key veterans in the secondary – but the Herd hasn’t finished higher than 90th in the nation against the pass since 2005. Part of that is the cost of doing business in the pass happy circuit of Conference USA, but part of it too is simple inconsistency. How much early improvement can Marshall hope to demonstrate in this area after losing one of the nation’s premier pass rushers to the NFL (Vinny Curry)? This is definitely worth monitoring.

- Keep an eye on Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson. His decision to return for his senior year was one of the Herd’s biggest “gets” of the offseason. Dobson is a big play threat who hauled in a dozen touchdowns last year and who has stung West Virginia in the past. Remember his 96-yard scoring catch in Huntington two years ago to put the Herd up 14-3?

Speaking of the Marshall offense . . .

You might be wondering why we are hearing talk that Marshall could possibly unveil some Chip Kelly-like twists on that side of the football Saturday afternoon. The Herd staff did indeed spend some time in the offseason with the Oregon coaches, and for good reason.

Despite the emergence of young quarterback Rakeem Cato, Marshall’s offense sorely lacked punch in 2011. They were a slow-out-of-the-gates offensive football team (Marshall led at the half just twice in 13 games last year) that was unable to produce on the ground (16 total rushing TDs the last two seasons ties Marshall with Memphis for the fewest among FBS teams). In point of fact, the Herd’s first rushing touchdown last year didn’t come until a 24-20 win over Rice in week seven. This isn’t a newfound problem, however. Marshall has failed to score a single rushing touchdown in 15 of 25 games under Doc Holliday. It’s an issue that is obviously on the radar of the Herd coaching staff, evidenced by the host of transfers and recruits brought in by Marshall during the offseason to help stack its backfield with more depth and, ostensibly, more explosion.

Compounding the Herd’s offensive woes last year was a patent inability to make big – or even intermediate – plays. Marshall ranked 108th in the country in plays of 10+ yards and 109th in plays of 20+ yards. There’s no trick to ball control offense. To pull it off you have to control the ball and move the chains. Marshall did neither, finishing 98th in third down conversions and 88th in time of possession.

If you do see new twists in the Herd’s attack on Saturday, can you blame them? The potential benefits to this would of course have to be weighed against the possible dangers of overwhelming a true sophomore quarterback who is still trying to master the nuances of the base offenses.

West Virginia is 27-4-1 all-time in home openers at Mountaineer Field. As I see it the key to bagging win number 28 comes down to starting fast. If the Mountaineers are asleep at the switch for the first two quarters of play (see: the Norfolk State and UConn games of 2011, to name a few) Marshall will find a way to stay in the football game and at that point anything goes.

If, however, Geno Smith and crew come out firing on all cylinders I’m convinced not much else will matter. Not the possible growing pains of a new WVU defense, not the new logos on the field, and not Marshall’s offensive wrinkles or new tempo.

A fast start will help WVU plant its first flag of the 2012 season and will prevent Marshall from slipping through the escape hatch.

See you at the fifty.


Jed Drenning, West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU, Big 12 football, Marshall Thundering Herd

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