Nine-year layoff, bad blood heighten the buildup for today's WVU-Marshall intrastate rivalry game

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- This is about green swapping paint with gold on country roads at long last today. This is about one color bleeding into another in a state where they've coexisted, peacefully or not, in their separate corners while colliding only once in the past 83 years. Maybe that's what 92-6 and 81-0 losses will do for rivals estranged by schedules, stubbornness and a few hundred miles between West Virginia's Mountaineer Field in the north and Marshall's Thundering Herd home of Huntington in the west.

"Being able to be a part of this in-state game has been a dream-come-true for me," said Marshall center Doug Legursky, a southern-end boy from Beckley, W.Va. "It seemed like it would never happen."

The bad blood over a broken deal after a 1997 contest, in which Chad Pennington threw four interceptions and Marshall blew a fourth-quarter lead in a 42-31 loss, plus the inception of the 12-game schedule, plus the intervention of a former Mountaineers quarterback named Gov. Joe Manchin III, all conspired to bring these parties together for one big party, panhandle to panhandle.

"It's the talk of our state," Marshall coach Mark Snyder said of today's 3:30 p.m. confrontation between his Herd of Conference USA and the fifth-ranked Mountaineers of the Big East.

This is the first of seven scheduled games between the two in-state Division I-A football programs. Ticket sales on both sides zoomed as a result, though the Mountaineers' rush could be attributed more to the promise of this 2006 season after an 11-1 campaign and Sugar Bowl triumph. That team closed with such a flourish it couldn't wait to open the next season, especially with a rival awaiting.

"Been looking forward to this since the Sugar Bowl was over," Mountaineers tailback Steve Slaton said.

It is a harmonic convergence among foes that have made little harmony in the past century. After the 1915 game ended with Marshall scoring on a Tower Pass -- player standing atop player, later made illegal -- and the 1923 game concluded with that 81-point whitewash, some 64 years passed without another meeting.

Marshall, after reviving from that 1970 program-obliterating plane crash to become a Division I-AA power in the 1990s, arose to Division I-A and promptly tried its hand with the state's big boy, West Virginia. Not even Randy Moss and Pennington could prevail. Nine years later, with a coach who arrived from Ohio State in the middle of spring practice 2005 and with a rebuilding program, Marshall comes to Morgantown once more.

"They beat us in a close victory up there in Morgantown in '97," said Marshall receiver Marcus Fitzgerald, younger brother of former Pitt star receiver Larry. "It's only good for us to go up there and give them a hard fight again."

They will fight for the first time over a reward, presented by the governor: the Friends of Coal Bowl Trophy. OK, so it truly is a lump of coal inside football-shaped glass. But it's something.

"The conference I just left, there was a trophy just about every week," Snyder said of the Big Ten. "I don't know how West Virginia feels about it, but we're excited to play this game."

"This will be a new experience for a lot of people," said Marshall athletic director Bob Marcum, who came out of retirement four years ago to lead his hometown alma mater. "Colleges across the country are trying to find the fans of the future. The fans of the future aren't like me; they're students. And students like a rivalry. It's something they talk about all year long.

"And I think this one will create a lot of interest."

The fans have spoken. Quite loudly, it seems.

"It's beginning to become a very, very, very highly looked at rival," said Marshall backup tight end Joe Bragg, who grew up around West Virginia University. "One of these days, we're all going to graduate. I'm going to Morgantown and Matt [Altobello, a Herd guard] will go to Keyser. You don't want to hear the rest of your life, 'You guys got stomped by WVU.' "

Strangely, there are only 23 Mountain State natives on Marshall's roster and 20 on the Mountaineers'. The out-of-staters, such as Eric Wicks of Perry Traditional Academy, have caught a few earfuls, too.

"The fans don't like each other," Wick said. "You can tell the hostility between the two."

"I wouldn't say so much hatred, but unfamiliarity," Marshall's Legursky said. "They probably look down on us and Marshall as a whole. West Virginia is the big school in the state."

And today Marshall-West Virginia is the big game for the state.

NOTES -- With Tropical Storm Ernesto looming and rain in the weekend forecast, the Mountaineers had wet-ball drills at midweek. ... Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez on inflated expectations for his team: "Obviously, we'll stub our toes at times. Maybe everybody's expectations will be so high, it'll be hard to please them."... Fitzgerald on the WVU work-study student who scouted a Marshall spring practice: "We're a totally different team from April. He can have those notes if he wants to."

SCOUTING REPORT

Matchup: West Virginia vs. Marshall, 3:30 p.m. today, Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va. West Virginia is favored by 22.

TV, radio: WTAE-TV; WWVA-AM (1170) and Mountaineer Sports Network. Games also can be heard at www.MSNsportsNet.com.

West Virginia: And so begins the most heralded season in Mountaineers history -- No. 5 ranking, 14 returning starters from an 11-1 Sugar Bowl-winning team. It begins with a twist: an in-state game dubbed "Friends of Coal Bowl."... QB Patrick White, TB Steve Slaton, FB Owen Schmitt are part of nine returning offensive starters. ... Defense returns only five starters, with secondary almost all new. Mountaineers aim to rotate starters and backups on defense to undermine foes with speed and depth.

Marshall: Last time the Thundering Herd faced Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez, it beat him -- 13-10 in 1999, when he was offensive coordinator at Clemson. ... TB Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 997 yards and caught 56 passes as sophomore last year. ... With Hiram Moore suspended and Shawn Lauzon hurt, top receiving target is WR Marcus Fitzgerald, younger brother of ex-Pitt star Larry. ... S Geremy Rodamer, a Morgantown native, was cleared this week of legal charges and is able to play.

Hidden stat: Marshall is 1-9 vs. Top 25 teams on the road, losing all three games against top-five opponents and beating only No. 6 Kansas State, 27-20, in 2003.


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Painful memory still lingers West Virginia

 

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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