By Cam Huffman
During eight years at Texas Tech and one at Oklahoma State, West Virginia University head football coach Dana Holgorsen saw some great in-state rivalries.
He was on the Texas Tech sidelines for the Red Raiders’ annual clashes with Texas A&M, Texas and Baylor, and he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State for the 2010 Bedlam game, which saw Oklahoma knock off his Cowboys 47-41.
Saturday’s Friends of Coal Bowl, which will pit West Virginia’s only two BCS-level football squads, Marshall and WVU, head-to-head isn’t one of those games. It simply doesn’t have the same history or intensity, and it’s not a conference rivalry.
But what Holgorsen can compare the upcoming season opener with is a couple experiences he had while coaching in Conference USA — Marshall’s current football home — as the offensive coordinator for head coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston in 2008 and 2009.
Holgorsen knows what it’s like for a team from that league to go up against one of the powers from college football’s top conferences. In 2009, he helped lead the Cougars to a 45-35 victory over the Big 12’s Oklahoma State in the second game of the year, and a week later his Houston team knocked off in-state big brother Texas Tech, also a Big 12 member.
“Just playing up a conference, they’re going to play hard,” said Holgorsen, using the Oklahoma State-Tulsa matchup as another example of a rivalry comparable to the WVU-Marshall game. “There have been several games like that over the last 10 years in the Big 12 that have been competitive.”
The Marshall-WVU series is a short and lopsided one. The teams have met only 11 times in the 100 years since they first got together on the gridiron in 1911, and the Mountaineers have won all of them, including a 6-0 mark in the current Friends of Coal Bowl series, which expires with Saturday’s meeting in Morgantown.
But Holgorsen admitted that even without much history, the game is still a little different than other non-conference games his team will play.
“It’s just in-state,” he said. “I don’t know how many times it’s actually been played, but last year with me being involved in it for the first time, it’s a game that means a lot to the people of West Virginia. It means a lot to both teams for bragging rights in-state and all of that.
“Watching all of Marshall’s games from last year — and I’ve watched all of them over the course of the last week — they played considerably harder against West Virginia than they did any other team out there. So we’re obviously expecting to get their best. The biggest thing is for our guys to understand that we’re going to have to play good to win.”
The Herd is coming off a 7-6 season in its second year with Doc Holliday — a WVU graduate and longtime assistant — as head coach. Marshall won its final three games in 2011, including a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl victory over FIU.
“They’re a solid Conference USA team,” said Holgorsen. “They went to a bowl game and won their bowl game last year. They have a lot of guys coming back, they’re coming in here with some momentum and they’re going to be ready to play.”
The key to a “little brother” knocking down a “big brother,” Holgorsen knows, is coming to battle with the right weapons in the holster.
That’s exactly what Houston had in 2009 with Case Keenum at quarterback and Patrick Edwards at wide receiver. Both had huge seasons for the Cougars and are now in the NFL — Keenum a backup quarterback for the Houston Texans and Edwards fighting for a roster spot with the Detroit Lions.
Marshall is hopeful it has a similar combination in quarterback Rakeem Cato and wide receiver Aaron Dobson.
Cato has a long way to go to reach the same level as Keenum — who ended his Houston career as the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns and completions — but he did show some promise as a freshman starter last year, throwing for 2,059 yards and 15 touchdowns. He opened with a solid performance against the Mountaineers in a lightning-shortened 34-13 loss, completing 15 of 21 passes for 115 yards.
“Going back and looking at it, he experienced some growing pains, which all freshmen do, especially at the quarterback position,” said Holgorsen of his first impression of Cato. “Question No. 1 is what offense are they going to run? There’s been some speculation on that. Hopefully he’s learning his second offense in as many years, but he did show some pretty good signs of being a special kind of quarterback.”
Dobson is much more proven. The senior from Dunbar approached the 50-reception, 700-yard mark in each of his last two seasons, and he caught 12 touchdown passes for the Herd as a junior.
“He ended up being the MVP of their bowl game last year, and he’s a big, good looking kid,” said Holgorsen. “He’s a returning starter, and he’s a physical guy that can block and make some catches that are pretty spectacular.
“He’s obviously a guy that’s caught our eye, and he’s going to be one of the bigger focus points of what we need to do to win the game.”
So with plenty of motivation and some strong dangerous weapons with which to play, Holgorsen knows Marshall will bring a fight, but he’s confident his team will be ready for the attack.
“We’re excited about playing the first game,” said WVU’s second-year coach, who picked up his first win as a head coach last year against the Herd. “I don’t care who we’re playing, to be honest with you. We sit there and watch film and try to come up with the best game plan that we possibly can, and everybody is excited about playing the first game.”
Will the season opener be the last between Marshall and WVU? Holgorsen said that’s not really up to him.
“I don’t get too far into the future schedules and all of that,” he explained. “I know there’s challenges, as far as you only have three games that you can play non-conference (in the Big 12). There’s all kinds of geographical reasons to play not only this game, but also guys from the surrounding states like Pitt and Maryland and all the rest of it. That’s why we have great administrators that lead us in the direction that we need to go.”
For now, Holgorsen’s only worried about the one on Saturday and holding onto the Mountaineers’ status as the Mountain State’s top team.
— E-mail: chuffman@