Doc Holliday's first year in Huntington was a bit rough, as the Herd collected just five wins. However, it was clear the team was coming together down the stretch, winning four of its last five matchups. The late run should give the Herd confidence for this season.
The Mountaineers are coming off their ninth consecutive winning season and the third straight with a 9-4 ledger. A three-point overtime loss to Connecticut took away WVU's chance at the outright title in the Big East and instead the team had to share it. Now the new look Mountaineers will be under the tutelage of Holgorsen, who took over for Bill Stewart, who begrudgingly stepped aside.
The Mountaineers have won all 10 meetings with the Thundering Herd, including a 24-21 overtime contest last year in Huntington.
Coach Holliday took over for Marshall last year, but that did not help the team's production offensively, as the Herd posted just 20.8 ppg. The biggest issue for Marshall was its inability to find consistency and now this year coach Holliday had to find a suitable player for the quarterback position.
Coach Holliday used practice and camp to determine who would get the starting nod against West Virginia and the winner was true freshman Rakeem Cato.
"I informed Cato today at meetings, but the decision has been made for a couple days," said Holliday. "Cato is beyond his years in a football sense and I believe he will be fine."
Making a first start is always tough, but Cato will have to do so in Morgantown, which is a very tough place to play even for a veteran gunslinger, let alone a freshman. If Cato is going to ease into the job than the Herd will need to find success on the ground.
Last year Marshall had one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation, averaging less than 100 yards per game. The top four rushers from a year ago are back, but even so, expect Travon Van to see plenty of time on Sunday.
To make matters worse for Marshall this past season the team had trouble defensively as well, especially against the pass. That weakness could be a strength in 2011, as coach Holliday returns plenty of experienced players, including safety Omar Brown. However, this unit will definitely be tested on Sunday against one of the best quarterbacks in the Big East.
What will help the secondary is a strong front line that can get to the opposing quarterback. Coach Holliday has plenty of experience up front, including the return of Vinny Curry, who racked up 12 sacks a year ago.
Coach Holliday did lose the services of Mario Harvey at linebacker, so players like Tyson Gale and Devin Arrington will need to step up their production and help the front line's push upfield.
Holgorsen is an offensive-minded coach, so coming into a situation where you have a solidified starter at quarterback is definitely a bonus. Geno Smith was a First-Team All-Big East selection last year and rightfully so after tossing 24 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. Smith is one of the best signal callers in the conference, and should start the year off with a strong performance.
Do not be surprised if Smith tries to go downfield a few times early to set the tone. If that is the case it is likely Tavon Austin will be on the receiving end. Austin has outstanding speed and can find the end zone any time the ball is in his hands.
While the passing games looks to be set up nicely for the new head coach, the same cannot be said for the rushing attack, which has to replace Noel Devine.
With the first game of the season only days away coach Holgorsen still does not know who will be the starter. In fact, he has stated that multiple players will see action in the backfield.
"We are still intent on playing four running backs during the game," said Holgorsen. "For the two different positions, it may be two fullbacks out there at times or three fullbacks at one time. Sometimes, it may be three smaller guys in there. That���s something we'll use to our advantage throughout the whole year."
Ryan Clarke found the end zone eight times last year and will likely be involved in the revolving door in the backfield.
The Mountaineers were one of the top defensive units in 2010, surrendering just 13.5 ppg. Matching numbers like that won't be easy as the defense is a young group as a whole.
The front line however, does return some talent in Bruce Irvin and his league-leading 14 sacks, as well as tackle Julian Miller, who was a Second Team All-Big East pick with nine sacks a year ago.
Coach Holgorsen's biggest task in the off-season will be shoring up a linebacking group that lost a lot of talent. Sunday's game will shed light on this position for WVU, which will be led by senior Najee Goode, who had 11 starts and 47 tackles a year ago, and sophomore outside linebacker Doug Rigg, who played in 13 games as a true freshman season.
The Mountaineers have an outstanding talent in the secondary in the form of Keith Tandy. Tandy received First-Team All-Big East honors last year after nabbing six interceptions.