The Marshall Thundering Herd will look to knock off their in-state rival when they head up I-79 to take on the 11th- ranked West Virginia Mountaineers at Milan Puskar Stadium in the 2012 edition of the Friends of Coal Bowl.
Rakeem Cato became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Marshall since Chad Pennington when he began last season's Friends of Coal Bowl under center for the Thundering Herd. Cato completed 15-of-21 passes for 115 yards in his debut, but the Mountaineers ran out to a 34-13 lead before inclement weather sent the teams to the locker room. Player fatigue and more predicted storms factored into both schools' decision to end the game.
The shortened victory gave the Mountaineers an 11-0 all-time record against Marshall. Although WVU has yet to lose to its in-state rival, the Thundering Herd have held halftime leads in three of the six bouts since the series was restored in 2006.
Cato will look to end his school's losing streak to WVU and snap its 10-game losing streak versus ranked opponents. The sophomore quarterback experienced a roller coaster ride of a season as a rookie, but the experience has molded him into a stronger player.
"One big thing Cato has done is he's matured and he puts things behind him and goes onto the next play," Thundering Herd Coach Doc Holliday said. "He's becoming the player we thought he'd be. He wants to be a leader and I told him he doesn't have to be a senior to do that."
Aaron Dobson is a gamebreaking wideout with enough ability to give Marshall a fighting chance. The talented wide receiver put himself on the radar of NFL scouts with spectacular highlight reel catches week after week. He earned an All-C-USA honorable mention after leading the team in yards (668), catches (49), and touchdown receptions (12). Antavious Wilson, Andre Booker, and Penn State transfer Devon Smith provide alternative targets for Cato in the aerial attack.
Offensive coordinator Bill Legg has both of his top rushers Tron Martinez and Travon Van back, but his inexperienced offensive line is suspect coming into the season.
Defensively, the Thundering Herd lost some key players, but they are deeper overall. The defensive line led by Jeremiah Taylor will have its hands full.
Marshall's linebacking unit features a converted defensive back in Devin Arrington along with T.J. Ross and Jermaine Holmes. The linebacker trio can cover more ground than most starting units due to their speed and quickness.
The Thundering Herd's secondary added a few helpful pieces in A.J. Leggett, Dominick LeGrande, and Okechukwu Okoroha. Leggett is one of the most highly anticipated recruits in the program's history and is expected to see time at cornerback as a true freshman. LeGrande and Okoroha brought experience and leadership from Chestnut Hill after the safeties transferred from Boston College to Marshall in the spring.
Marshall's new look secondary will not have to wait very long to be tested as they go up against one of the top quarterbacks in the nation on opening day. Geno Smith played in each game versus Marshall since becoming a Mountaineer and engineered two second-half comebacks before last year's comfortable victory. He finished his remarkable junior campaign off with six TD passes in a 70-33 victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Smith completed 65.8 percent of his passes last year, logging 4,385 yards, 31 TDs and only 7 INTs.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on him, he puts enough pressure on himself, but he has improved everything," said head coach Dana Holgorsen. "His footwork is better, his arm strength is better, his quickness is better, his release is better, his accuracy is better, he's really improved his game and it shows out there. He's much more comfortable obviously in the second year of the offense. He is more comfortable from a mental standpoint. From a physical standpoint, he has improved himself."
Holgorsen's offense was never stagnant in 2011. WVU scored 21 points or more in each game and averaged 37.6 ppg. A glaring reason for the overwhelming offensive production was the unstoppable wide receiver duo of Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. As Smith excelled, Bailey (1,279) and Austin (1,189) set new program records for receiving yards in a single season.
WVU's rushing attack does not have a Steve Slaton or Noel Devine to shred opposing defenses this season. Shawne Alston will see the bulk of the carries and will likely have some holes to dash through as opponents scheme to stop Smith and company from airing it out.
The Mountaineers will need to improve on the defensive side of the ball in their inaugural season in the Big 12, but they have a decent amount of experience and return six starters. Senior Terrance Garvin and junior Doug Rigg are both expected to assume more vital roles at linebacker.
Cornerback Pat Miller (5-11, 191) is an excellent coverage back in the WVU secondary, but he will be challenged by the bigger and stronger Dobson. Safety Darwin Cook brings aggression to the table, but the defensive line is filled with question marks at this point.
Holliday will be personally invested in this one more than most considering he played at WVU and spent over 20 years as an assistant at his alma mater before headed to Huntington to take over at Marshall. Current players on WVU's roster are there because Holliday recruited them.