Coal Bowl: No. 24 WVU pulls away from Marshall in shortened season opener
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia University football fans knew they would be watching the scoreboard in Coach Dana Holgorsen's first game Sunday.
They just figured it would be because of their new coach's offense and not the weather.
Moments after Tavon Austin returned a kickoff 100 yards for a decisive touchdown, the stadium was evacuated for the first of three delays because of lightning in the area - the first lasted 3 hours, 3 minutes.
The scoreboard in the south end zone showed the 24th-ranked Mountaineers in the lead, 27-13, but it also featured a message on a menacing red screen that advised fans to seek shelter.
That would be interchangeably replaced with a feed from the Weather Channel website and the local radar in motion forecasting when one storm would leave and the next would arrive.
Throughout the delays, thousands of fans remained inside the stadium and its concourse areas. About as many would leave and traffic lined the streets leaving the stadium in all directions
Delayed first at 5:47 p.m. and with 4:59 remaining in the third quarter, players returned to the field at 7:40 and were close to playing at 8:05 before lightning forced another stoppage.
During that delay, WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck and his counterpart, Marshall's Mike Hamrick, met with the head coaches and game officials to discuss options.
The game resumed at 8:50 only to be delayed a third time at 9:06 and right after freshman running back Vernard Roberts scored on a 1-yard run to make it 34-13 after 14 seconds of the fourth quarter. WVU was given the win in Holgorsen's debut as a head coach when the game was called at 10:24. There would be no trophy presentation in sixth Friends of Coal Bowl.
Luck and Hamrick released a joint statement: "After consultation with the Office of the Commissioner of the Big East Conference and the Office of Commissioner of Conference USA, as well as the medical staffs of Marshall University and West Virginia University, and based on the pending weather forecast, as well as the physical and mental fatigue of the student-athletes, it has been decided that the football game between Marshall University and West Virginia University has been stopped in the fourth quarter, resulting in a final score of 34-13."
There was 2 hours, 35 minute of game time and 4 hours, 22 minutes of delays. Holgorsen jokingly said, "We thought about putting in some study hall hours."
In a more serious tone, Holgorsen added, "Everybody wants to play, everybody wants a full game and everybody needs the snaps. There comes a point where enough is enough."
The majority of the crowd of 60,758 at Mountaineer Field was there to see Holgorsen's first game and the new offense. The attendance was the best at an opener since No. 1 Ohio State helped draw 68,409 in 1998. The Mountaineers had 60,000 or more just five times the previous three seasons.
WVU tried to entertain and finished with 291 yards of offense, but also 11 runs or completed passes that either gained no yards or lost yardage.
"I don't think our offense was terrible by any stretch of the imagination," Holgorsen said, "but it probably wasn't up to your standards."
Quarterback Geno Smith completed 26 of 35 pass attempts for 249 yards and touchdowns to Ivan McCartney and Stedman Bailey. The Mountaineers ran 26 times for 42 yards. Freshman Andrew Buie started and had 15 carries for 30 yards, but he left the game after suffering an upper extremity injury. Bailey caught five passes for a career-high 76 yards and seven others had at least one reception. McCartney also had a career-high five receptions for 31 yards.
"He did well keeping plays alive early and he made a couple big plays on third downs," Holgorsen said.
Right after Marshall answered WVU's turnover on downs near midfield with a 21-yard field goal by Tyler Warner, Austin fielded the kickoff in his end zone and started right, but worked back to the left and exploited an alley before stepping through an attempt at a tackle by kicker Justin Haig.
It was the sixth 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in Mountaineers history and Austin's second career kickoff return touchdown. It evened out WVU's special teams mistake in the first quarter. Marshall's Andre Booker returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown, the second-longest punt return score ever against WVU. East Carolina's Derrek Batson had a 92-yard return touchdown in 1992.
Holgorsen's first score came on a 23-yard field goal by Tyler Bitancurt and his offense took the lead for good when Smith completed a 4-yard pass to McCartney.
WVU's defense forced a punt and Smith converted four third downs on a touchdown drive. On third-and-13, Smith scrambled and gained 15 yards. On third-and-10, Smith again moved out of danger and completed an 11-yard pass to Brad Starks. On third-and-16, Smith escaped trouble one more time and found Willie Milhouse for a 29-yard gain. Finally, on third-and-9 he hit Bailey on a slant into the end zone for a 20-7 lead.
Marshall punted again and Bitancurt hit from 43-yards out and the Mountaineers had a run 41 plays to Marshall's 16.
The Thundering Herd regrouped and drove 10 plays and 72 yards, including a 22-yard run by Tron Martinez to get to the WVU 16-yard line. WVU only allowed six longer runs in 2010. Warner's field goal as time expired made it 20-10 at the half.
"We probably had too much energy early," Holgorsen said. "But I thought it was pretty good effort for three quarters and probably would've been four if we played it."
Marshall kicked off to start the second half and tried an onside kick, but WVU recovered. Holgorsen's first gamble followed soon thereafter and he decided to go for it on a fourth-and-1 at Marshall's 48. Roberts got his first collegiate carry and was stopped for no gain. Marshall drove to and had a first-and-goal at the 4, but settled for another short field goal. The Herd offense ran five plays inside WVU's 10 and totaled five yards and no touchdowns.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.