By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
If West Virginia, coming off a 70-point outburst against Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl, has an inflated opinion of itself, Marshall Coach Doc Holliday wasn’t going to do anything to deflate it with anything he said prior to Saturday’s noon opener of the 2012 college football season at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Holliday did everything but award the Mountaineers the national championship as he spoke about the opponent his team will be playing for the final time in the series that has come to be known as the Friends of Coal Bowl, a psychological ploy as old as Sigmund Freud himself.
Speaking almost too quickly to comprehend on the Conference USA coaches’ conference call, the one-time WVU player and assistant coach out of Hurricane did the following:
• He promoted WVU from the nation’s No. 11 team, which is where they reside in the two major polls, to “one of the top 10 teams in America.”
• He took quarterback Geno Smith from being the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year and turned him into the Heisman Trophy winner.
“He’s picked to win the Heisman Trophy and should win the Heisman,” Holliday said.
• As for Tavon Austin, the fleet, elusive wide receiver and kick returner ... well, Holliday said unequivocally that if Smith hadn’t been named the conference’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year “Austin would have been,” which is probably news to Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones.
• And then he proclaimed the Mountaineers “the most talented team in their league” even with Oklahoma ranked No. 4 in the polls.
By the time you got through listening to Holliday talk about WVU, you wondered if his Thundering Herd would show up Saturday, although Holliday dismissed any talk about that.
See, this, he said, is an important game to the Herd, just as it is to West Virginia.
First of all, it’s their last chance to beat the Mountaineers, who own nine straight victories in the series, although a couple of games were nailbiters, especially two years ago when WVU had to erase a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter — with a two-point conversion thrown in for good measure — to win in overtime.
But Holliday claims even the rivalry doesn’t enter into it.
“It’s a big game because it’s our next game,” he said.
Still, there is something extra special for an underdog in any rivalry game and WVU is a 24-point favorite in this game.
Holgorsen, new to the area last year, noticed it as he looked back at the film of all of Marshall’s games from last year.
“Marshall played considerably harder against West Virginia than they did against any other team out there,” he said.
Like Holliday, though, Holgorsen played down the rivalry aspect, noting that he stays in the here-and-now and concentrates only on this week’s opponent, no matter who it may be.
Holliday did not necessarily agree with Holgorsen’s film assessment that his team played harder against WVU in a 34-13 whipping that was cut short by a fourth-quarter thunderstorm with dangerous lightning.
“I thought the one thing our team did a year ago was embrace every game and played as hard as we could every game,” he said.
So how does an underdog team facing such an overwhelming offense figure out a way to slow it down?
“They will get their catches and they’re going to get their yards,” Holliday said. “You just have to do a great job of minimizing the big play and when they catch it, get them on the ground.”
Having said that, the Doc had one more thing to say.
“That’s easier said than done when they have guys like Stedman (Bailey) and Tavon catching it,” he said.
The defense may offer Holliday some hope.
“There’s a lot of unknowns with the defense,” Holliday admitted. “They got two new coordinators in there. They will be different defensively than they have been in past, but they got good players on defense, too.
“There’s a lot of unknowns going into that first game. We just have to go in there prepared the best we can. I’m sure we’ll have to make some adjustments early because you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
There is one other uncertainty that comes with the game and that is WVU sophomore running back Dustin Garrison’s condition. Holgorsen didn’t sound at all sure that his surgically repaired knee would let him perform in this game and he has named Shawne Alston as his starter.
“We haven’t made a decision (on Garrison),” Holgorsen said. “The knee was sore last week so we gave him a few days off. The plan has been to get him to game week and see where he is.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.