How sweet would a Marshall victory over intra-state competitors West Virginia, ranked #23 in the nation in the Associated Press Top 25 college football poll, have been Friday night? Considering that Marshall had never beaten West Virginia in their nine previous match-ups and that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the tragic Marshall plane crash that killed 75 people and devastated the college’s football program, a victory over the powerful Mountaineers — and in front of a record home crowd on national television (ESPN) as well — would have been something to remember. And even though the Marshall defense had held West Virginia to only 6 points halfway through the Fourth Quarter, things would quickly fall apart, leaving Marshall a memory of what-could’ve-been.
New Marshall Coach Doc Holliday had his defense ready for the Mountaineers. Having coached at WVU as the defensive coordinator, Holliday was familiar with the overall West Virginia football gameplan. Judging by the results of the first three and a half quarters (via ESPN), Holliday’s familiarity was working considerably to his advantage. Marshall’s quick defense shut down the Mountaineers offense and a couple quick scores, including a 96-yard pass play for a touchdown, put the Thundering Herd in the driver’s seat.
Marshall would get the ball on a West Virginia fumble on the Mountaineers 16 yardline. But instead of issuing a game clinching coup de grace, Marshall would return the favor, fumbling the ball away on first down and goal at the WVU 4.
With just over 8 minutes to go in the game, West Virginia’s offense finally woke up and went to work. Geno Smith, WVU’s quarterback, who passed for 316 yards on the day, took the theretofore listless Mountaineers down the field for a much needed touchdown, running back Noel Devine carrying the ball the final four yards.
It looked as if Marshall might just hold on and run out the clock on West Virginia, protecting a 21-13 lead. They got a first down on the first play of the next possession. The clock wound down to less than 5 minutes to play. Two stops for no gain, a nine-yard rush, and two West Virginia timeouts gave the Mountaineers the ball back on a punt with just over 3 minutes remaining.
Smith went to work again. Two minutes and 57 seconds later, a 5-yard toss to Will Johnson brought West Virginia to within two. A two-point conversion tied the game.
In overtime, Smith and Devine got their football team to the 3. A field goal put WVU up by three points: 24-21.
Marshall got within field goal range as well, but the kick went wide and West Virginia remained undefeated.
If one is a West Virginia football fan, the night had to be disappointing, nailbiting, and — in the end — exhilarating. Dodging a bullet so early in the season against an unranked team might see them drop from the AP Top 25 college football rankings — look what it did to #15 Pittsburgh in Week 1 — but it keeps up hopes for a Big East championship run as well as a major BCS bowl bid (and — for those with more grandiose thoughts — even a national championship).
For the Marshall football fan, the night was ultimately disappointing, especially after such great promise and a chance to ice the game in the Fourth Quarter. But the Thundering Herd can take with them the certainty that head coach Doc Holliday has started putting together a strong program. The Thundering Herd have been known for their high-powered offenses in the past (and even won two national championships), but a defense-oriented coach could put Marshall in the same class as Boise State within a couple seasons, reigniting a legendary football tradition in Huntington.
And 2011 might see Marshall not looking back at a could’ve-been…
“West Virginia vs. Marshall,” ESPN Television