Friends of the Coal Bowl: WVU vs. Marshall

This weekend the Mountaineers will start off their season against the visiting Thundering Herd.  However, even though this matchup is called Friends of the Coal Bowl, there will be nothing friendly about this game.

Last year, West Virginia destroyed Marshall 34-13 and that game was delayed several times due to thunder storms and with 14 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers were finally declared the winner.  So far, no reports of rain will happen on Saturday and it looks like this game will be played in full.  The Mountaineers are a perfect 10-0 against the Thundering Herd and this year they hope to make it 11-0. 

This is  whole new year for the Mountaineers and with that comes a lot more experience in Dana Holgorsen's offensive system.  When these two teams played last year the system was still somewhat new to quarterback Geno Smith and the offense, but after demonstrating what they can do with it during the season and finally in the Orange Bowl, Mountaineer fans should be in store for a high scoring game.

Smith had a spectacular season last year recording 346 completions out of 526 attempts for 4,385 yards, 31 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions.  With a whole year and off season of practice, look for Smith to surpass these stats.  Last year against Marshall he went 26 of 35 for 249 yards and 2 touchdowns.  While that game did get out of hand with the rain and score, this year the weather looks fine which means Smith will definitely have a huge game.

Some good news for the offense this year is that all of Smith's most valuable targets are returning.  Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin and Ivan McCartney are back and all three of them will be making huge strides on offense this year.  Last year, Bailey was the number one receiver with 72 receptions, 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Look for his yardage to increase a little more this year since most teams will be focused on stopping Austin.  Austin last year was second on the depth chart with 101 receptions, 1,186 yards and 8 touchdowns, expect for his stats to drop a little bit, especially once they start playing dominant Big 12 teams.  McCartney ended up third on the wide receiver depth chart with 49 receptions, 585 yards and only 3 touchdowns.  Look for him to dominant this year, since teams will mostly focus on Bailey and Austin McCartney should be able to hit the 1,000 yard mark in receiving and look for his touchdowns to improve too.  Since they are playing Marshall, all three of these players should be able to have big days.

Another positive for this offense is that their top two running backs are coming back; Dustin Garrison and Shawne Alston.  Last year, Garrison had 136 carries for 742 yards and 6 touchdowns while Alston had 97 carries for 416 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Look for Holgorsen to mix up rushing and passing plays in order to keep the Thundering Herd off balance.  This year could definitely be a big year for Garrison as he looks to hit 1,000 yards on the ground and it is very possible that he could do just that.

One of the biggest changes in the off season was with the Mountaineer defense.  For starters Bruce Irvin, Keith Tandy and Najee Goode were all drafted and are now in the NFL.  Another big change is that defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel left West Virginia to be the defensive coordinator at Arizona and be under former Mountaineer coach Rich Rodriguez.  The Mountaineers now have two defensive coordinators, Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson.  Possibly one of the biggest changes is how the Mountaineers will setup on defense.  Under Casteel they ran a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, now it will be a3-4 scheme or even 4-3 scheme.  This game will determine if the Mountaineer defense is ready for the season and to see if they have a grasp on the new defensive plan.  When these two teams played last year, the only touchdown Marshall was able able to score was off a punt return.  So if the defense can settle in and get focused then it will be a long day for the Thundering Herd offense.

West Virginia’s special teams were awful last year to say they least, time and time again they failed to come up big when it mattered.  They couldn’t punt more than 20 yards and they couldn’t tackle to save their lives.  The only player who was really noticeable was the kicker Tyler Bitancurt.  If the Mountaineers can play like they have in the past against Marshall then they may only need Bitancurt to kick for the extra point.

With all that being said the Mountaineers don't have to worry too much on Saturday, except one of the biggest problems on defense last year was allowing players to get behind the cornerbacks and then burning them for big yardage.  One player on Marshall that Mountaineers have to shutdown is wide receiver Aaron Dobson.  Last year, the defense only allowed him to grab 6 balls for 22 yards, but with the loses at defense, two new defense coordinators and a new defensive system the Mountaineers have to catch on quickly or else him and the other receivers will be burning them all day.

This is the second year in a row that the Mountaineers have started off their season against the Thundering Herd and with all the talent that is returning expect a monster game from West Virginia.  Kickoff for this game is at noon.

Prediction: WVU-40  Marshall-17

Player of the Game: Geno Smith 30/45  350 yards  3TDs

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