Marshall-West Virginia Preview
There have been plenty of distractions for Dana Holgorsen since
he was hired in December as
So is former longtime West Virginia assistant Doc Holliday, but that just got a little more difficult for the Marshall coach.
The 24th-ranked Mountaineers will try to remain undefeated against the Thundering Herd when the in-state rivals meet in the "Coal Bowl" on Sunday in Morgantown.
Despite West Virginia finishing 9-4 and just missing a BCS bowl game last season, athletic director Oliver Luck announced a major shake-up prior to the team's 23-7 loss to North Carolina State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Holgorsen would join the program in 2011 as offensive coordinator - the position he held with Oklahoma State - before taking over for coach Bill Stewart the following year.
However, that arrangement proved to be a complicated one as Stewart reportedly asked a member of the media to "dig up dirt" on his successor.
Stewart resigned in June, leaving Holgorsen as a head coach for the first time. His arrival brought plenty of excitement after he helped the Cowboys rank third in the FBS in total offense last season, but not all news coming out of Morgantown this summer was good.
An intoxicated Holgorsen was escorted out of a casino in May. In early July, the Mountaineers were placed on two years' probation - not including postseason play - for major rules violations under Stewart and former coach Rich Rodriguez. The following week, linebacker Branko Busick was dismissed from the team following an arrest on an armed robbery charge.
"As a team, we really didn't focus on a lot of that outside stuff," said fullback Ryan Clarke, who rushed for 291 yards and a team-high eight TDs in 2010. "We were just making sure we were trying to get ready for the season."
The Thundering Herd have been busy doing the same, trying to erase the disappointment of last year's 5-7 mark. Holliday, a former West Virginia linebacker who served as a Mountaineers assistant from 1979-99 and 2008-09, opens the season without senior wide receiver Troy Evans after he was charged with four armed robberies that occurred early Sunday near the Marshall campus.
Without Evans, who caught 21 passes for 225 yards last season, and tight end Lee Smith - now with the New England Patriots - true freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato will likely target Wayne Bonner, Aaron Dobson, and Antavious Wilson.
Marshall freshman running back Travon Van and returning starter Tron Martinez will face a Mountaineers defense that ranked third in the FBS last season, allowing 261.1 yards per game. Key returning members of that unit include seniors Bruce Irvin (14 sacks), Julian Miller (nine) and Keith Tandy, who led the Big East with six interceptions in 2010.
West Virginia's offense is still a "work in progress," according to Holgorsen, so preventing junior quarterback Geno Smith from taking hits will be key as freshman Paul Millard is the backup. As a first-year starter in 2010, Smith threw for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns.
One of his best moments came in his first road start - a 24-21 overtime win over Marshall on Sept. 10, when he rallied the team from 15 down in the fourth quarter to help West Virginia improve to 10-0 in this series.
Marshall's Tyler Warner had a chance to force a second overtime but missed a 39-yard field goal attempt.
"He's a much improved player and, if we get in that situation again, he will make that kick," Holliday said.