Coal Bowl: Marshall aware this could be last shot at WVU
HUNTINGTON,W.Va. -- Bill Legg recalls running out onto Mountaineer Field on Aug. 30, 1997 and hearing the crowd explode.
Most of the seats were populated in old gold and blue, but for the first time in the modern college football era, there were fans clad in Kelly green and white.
Before that day, a Marshall-West Virginia University football clash was a leather-helmet affair for the first quarter of the 20th century. It was a game that vanished from both teams' schedules after 1923. On that day in 1997, with Chad Pennington and Randy Moss on Marshall's side and Marc Bulger, Amos Zereoue and Gary Stills on WVU's, it was resurrected.
"Everybody was juiced up for that game," Legg said. "Both sides were juiced up for that game from the team perspective. Both sides, from the fan perspective, they were juiced up for that game. And there was a lot of electricity."
Legg was WVU's interior offensive line coach for that game, but he wasn't the only current Marshall coach on that Mountaineer sideline. Coach Doc Holliday was WVU's assistant head coach and wide receivers coach.
Running backs coach Jajuan Seider was the Mountaineers' backup quarterback.
None of the three feel the energy of that 1997 game disappeared as the two teams embarked on the Friends of Coal Bowl series that began in 2006.
"For anybody to say there's not interest in that game, they're kidding themselves," Holliday said. "I've had so many dadgum calls for tickets, I'd have probably sold out half of whatever they got left."
Yet after Saturday's game, to be broadcast at noon on FX, there is no guarantee this game will return in future seasons.
The two universities have yet to agree on extending the series and, with WVU's move to the 10-team Big 12, it lost a non-conference game slot where Marshall could fit.
So the Herd - trying to build momentum from last season's 7-6 finish and Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl win - knows Saturday could be its last shot at its first win over WVU.
Holliday, Legg and Seider remember the packed house of screaming fans in 1997, how 65,492 people crammed into a stadium built to hold 63,500. They remember the Thundering Herd's furious 21-point third-quarter comeback to take the lead and WVU's two-touchdown fourth-quarter that allowed the Mountaineers to escape with a 42-31 win.
"West Virginia took the big-boy approach: We're going to walk in there and win that game," Seider said. "The next thing you know, we're down and we're fighting and scrapping to get back into that game."
The Herd came closer to victory only twice. Marshall lost to WVU 17-15 in 1911. And in Holliday's first season as coach, the Herd held a 21-6 fourth-quarter lead in Huntington before losing 24-21 in overtime.
Remove the 2010 game from the equation and WVU's average margin of victory in the other five Friends of Coal Bowl games is 23.8 points. Yet the 1997 and 2010 games tell Seider that Marshall's first victory could be closer than some think.
"You can say what you want," he said. "Any day that ball's snapped, it's 60 minutes and the guy who makes less mistakes and the guy who executes the most will win the game."
The Herd has upgraded in speed and athleticism since last season. Tron Martinez, Marshall's leading rusher in 2011, may be out indefinitely while recovering from offseason knee surgery, but No. 2 rusher Travon Van will play and will be backed up by redshirt junior Essray Taliaferro and freshmen Kevin Grooms and Steward Butler.
Seider has repeatedly said that foursome could form a 4x100-meter relay team that could stack up against any other running back unit in college football.
That running attack will be coupled with quarterback Rakeem Cato, a year older and wiser following his 2,059-yard, 15-touchdown freshman campaign, and a trio of senior wideouts that includes Biletnikoff Award candidate Aaron Dobson.
The defense has welcomed a trio of BCS-conference transfers - safeties Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha from Boston College and corner Derrick Thomas from Penn State. Their arrival allowed Devin Arrington and Raheem Waiters, both safeties last season, to add speed to the Herd's linebacker corps. Marshall will need that speed against a WVU offense that slapped a PlayStation-esque 70 points on Clemson in last season's Orange Bowl and returns Heisman candidate quarterback Geno Smith and Biletnikoff Award candidates Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Marshall's coaches wish the series would continue, especially Legg, who has a close relationship with both universities beyond his coaching resume. He played football at WVUand his father attended Marshall. He graduated from Poca High School and watched friends head off to both schools. He understands the passion of both sides and, while he thinks the teams will play again sometime in the future, he'd like to see it happen sooner, rather than later.
"It's a great thing when the two state universities can compete against each other," he said, "whether it's in tiddlywinks, football, basketball, baseball or whatever it is."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.