By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It was an offensive explosion never before seen at Milan Puskar Stadium at Mountaineer Field.
West Virginia’s Geno Smith completed 32-of-36 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns, and the Mountaineers rushed for 324 yards, while Marshall’s Rakeem Cato connected on 38-of-54 passes for 413 yards and two touchdowns as the WVU Mountaineers defeated the Marshall Thundering Herd 69-34 in the season opener for both teams, Saturday afternoon.
The teams combined for exactly 1,200 yards of offense, 655 for West Virginia and 545 for Marshall.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen was pleased with the offensive balance shown by the Mountaineers.
“It’s about as balanced as you can possibly be with 300 plus yards in rushing and passing,” Holgorsen said. “We spread the ball around to a lot of people. The balance standpoint is important to me.
“If we’re running the ball and we’re not getting any yards, then we’ll start throwing the ball more and that’s what the offense is able to do. It doesn’t just start with the running backs, but with the guys up front and we’ve played better up front than we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said, “They are a tough offense to defend and we didn’t do a very good job of it today.”
West Virginia moved the ball from the onset. After a Marshall three-and-out the Mountaineers drove 94 yards in nine plays for the score, a 32-yard strike from Smith to Stedman Bailey. Tyler Bitancurt’s kick failed and WVU was up 6-0.
The Mountaineers could not be stopped in the first half of the game, scoring on five of six possessions. The only time WVU did not score they drove the ball from its six to the Marshall four, before Smith was stopped short of the goal on a fourth-and-goal.
West Virginia would get a three yard touchdown run from Shawne Alston, a 24 yard run by Andrew Buie and passes of six yards to Tavon Austin and nine to J.D. Woods for first half touchdowns.
Marshall got on the board in the second quarter on a four yard run by Travon Van. The Herd also got a 34-yard field goal from Justin Haig, but it was WVU ahead at the break, 34-10.
Asked if he made any second half adjustments, Holgorsen said, “No, we really didn’t. Everything that we were doing was working except for the third-and-one on the one. That really ticks me off.
“We should’ve kicked the field goal there. That was being stubborn. That’s not good football. That was a bad call. But obviously we scored on six of the first seven drives, or whatever it was, so we didn’t need to make too many adjustments.”
West Virginia’s offense picked up in the second half where it left off in the first. Taking the kickoff, WVU drove 64 yards in seven plays, with Alston running the final 21 for the score. Bitancurt’s kick made if 41-10 with 12;27 to go in the third period.
Marshall moved the ball against West Virginia throughout the game, but they could not stop the high-powered Mountaineer offense. In the second half WVU scored on five of eight possessions, including a fumble returned for a score by Isaiah Bruce.
Smith played one possession in the fourth quarter before giving quarterback duties to Paul Millard. Millard did his part by tossing a five yard fade to Bailey in the left corner of the end zone to give WVU its biggest lead of the game, 69-20 with 13:04 left in the contest.
Cato meanwhile, kept racking up yards against the Mountaineers. In the game’s final 10 minutes Cato struck for two touchdown passes, one to Tommy Shuler from 12 yards out with 9:50 to play, and the other an 11-yard pass to Eric Frohnapfel for the game’s final points with 54 ticks left on the clock.
With the nation looking to the arm of Smith and the Mountaineer receivers, Holliday talked about the WVU rushing game.
“We did a better job, a much better job a year ago stopping them and we did not do that today,” Holliday said. “They were able to run it and able to throw it, and unfortunately did both. We have to get out there and show some aggression.
“We talked all along that they (WVU) have great receivers. Shawne Alston is an underrated running back. I mean he is a big, physical kid that can break tackles.”
Alston led the WVU rushing attack with 125 yards on 16 carries. Buie toted the pigskin six times for 80 yards, Austin carried three times for 76 and Smith rushed eight times for 65 yards. Holgorsen gave credit where credit was due, to Alston.
“In the bowl game when Dustin (Garrison) went down, I put Shawne in and he took advantage of his opportunity. We all know that he was hurt last year and we didn’t have him in the spring, we didn’t have him for about five games, and he got better as the year went on,” Holgorsen said. “Then in the off-season he got himself in shape. He is healthy and feels good and is a leader. It’s hard not to name him a captain, but we have other guys.”
Holgorsen said despite the high number of yards allowed by the Mountaineer defense, he’s not worried.
“We’re not going to be too concerned with that at this point,” Holgorsen said. “The football got kind of sloppy there in the second half. It’s more about evaluating each and every position to see what we have to get better between now and in two weeks.”
West Virginia is open next week, then plays James Madison at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, on Sept. 15.
Marshall welcomes former Southern Conference rival Western Carolina to Joan C. Edwards Stadium next Saturday for its home opener.
Coal Bowl Notes:
•Smith’s second quarter, 13-yard completion to Woods was the 631st of his career, which set a WVU record for career completions. Mark Bulger (1996-99) held the previous record.
•Smith’s fourth quarter five-yard TD pass to Bailey gave him 60 career TD passes, passing Bulger to become the all-time WVU touchdown passer.
•The 69 points is the most WVU has scored in a season opener since 1958 when they defeated Richmond 68-22.
•The 69 points against Marshall is the most scored against the Herd since 1923 when WVU beat Marshall 81-0.
•The two teams combined for 95 pass attempts a Milan Puskar Stadium at Mountaineer Field record. The previous record was 72 vs. LSU in 2011.
•Cato’s 413 yards passing were the most by a Herd quarterback since Bernard Morris passed for 417 against New Hampshire in 2007.
•Marshall’s 14-play, 98-yard drive tied for the longest in the Friends of Coal Bowl series. WVU equaled the feat in the 2010 game.
•Marshall had 13 different receivers catch passes in the game.
—Contact Bob Redd at