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Mountaineers look to spread success

The attack on the ground and through the air makes West Virginia a fun place to play ball.

BOB HARIG
Published September 7, 2004

Rasheed Marshall remembers the good feeling that came over him when Rich Rodriguez was named coach at West Virginia. He remembers the smile that came to his face, the thoughts that raced through his brain, the excitement about the future.

Rodriguez was a highly regarded assistant coach at Clemson under Tommy Bowden. He held a similar position under Bowden at Tulane. Both of those programs lit up scoreboards. Marshall, a redshirt freshman quarterback at the time, envisioned a similar scenario in Morgantown, W.Va.

"I knew it was a fun offense, and it's been just that," Marshall said during a recent telephone interview. "I get a lot of different options, a lot of run-pass options. And the way our offense is built, we try to keep the defense off balance. We can do a lot of things out of a lot of different formations, and that's hard for a defense to adjust to." Marshall, a senior and third-year starter, is the most productive quarterback in the Big East. His mastery of the offense and Rodriguez's innovative shaping of it are reasons the Mountaineers are so highly regarded. Heading into Saturday's game at Central Florida, West Virginia is ranked 10th in the Associated Press poll after a 56-23 season-opening victory over East Carolina. And that game showed West Virginia's potency.

Kay-Jay Harris, who went to Tampa Bay Tech, rushed for a school-record 337 yards and four touchdowns, smashing the mark of 291 yards set by Kerry Marbury in 1971 against Temple. Harris' effort was also a Big East record, putting his name ahead of Miami's Edgerrin James, who had 299 against UCLA in 1998.

With Miami no longer in the Big East, the Mountaineers are expected to rule the conference this season. And there is some talk they could go 11-0.

Talk, of course, that makes Rodriguez cringe.

"We haven't been in this situation," said Rodriguez, 40, who returned to his alma mater as coach in 2001 and is 20-17 in three seasons, including last season's 8-5 mark and co-Big East title. "It's been a long time as a program. We addressed it at the first team meeting. We talked about it at length. We talked about every team on our schedule. Are we mature enough to handle it? So far what I've seen is our guys have handled it pretty well."

Rodriguez's offense is simply called the "Spread" and there might not be a college football team in the country that runs it better than West Virginia.

Although the original idea of the offense was to create space for wide-open passing, Rodriguez has seen it develop into an offense that can be quite potent on the ground, as Saturday's game showed. And in each of the past two seasons the offense has produced 1,000-yard rushers.

Harris, 25, who transferred from Garden City (Kan.) Community College (he played three seasons of minor-league baseball before going to junior college), was Quincy Wilson's backup last season and rushed for 524 yards and scored four touchdowns.

And there's another Tampa Bay connection with the offense: former Bucs tight end Calvin Magee, West Virginia's offensive coordinator, was an assistant coach under Jim Leavitt at USF from 1996 to 2000.

Rodriguez first used a form of the offense when he became coach in 1990 at Glenville State College, an NAIA school where he went 43-28-2 in seven seasons. In six of those seasons Glenville led its conference in scoring. Rodriguez joined Bowden in 1997 at Tulane, where he was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for two seasons. In 1998 the Green Wave was the only team in the country to average more than 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing behind former Gibbs High and Bucs quarterback Shaun King. Rodriguez followed Bowden to Clemson, where the Tigers established 51 school records in 2000.

"It's really the same as 14 years ago at Glenville, but I've tweaked it," Rodriguez said. "You have to try to do that. There are more teams using it, and defenses are geared toward stopping the spread. It's a constant battle to keep your base offense the same but not be easy to defend. That's part of the fun.

"Early on, it was more pass than run. Now it's more run than pass. Of course we want balance. But our philosophy is to spread the field out, defend people in space, take what the defense gives you. And with the no-huddle we try to keep a fast tempo, a two-minute-type tempo. It's sort of the old "Run and Shoot' combined with a power running game. It's been a lot of fun to coach. The possibilities are endless."

That seems to be the case for the Mountaineers who, after Saturday's game against UCF, play Maryland on Sept. 18 at home then travel to Virginia Tech on Oct. 2. If they can survive those tests, there is a very real possibility of being undefeated heading into a season-ending Big East showdown Nov. 25 at Pittsburgh.

"There's a lot of buzz going around," Marshall said. "It's a good feeling as a player, because in the past it hasn't been this good. In '98 they had a good team here (8-4). But no team has ever been ranked as high as this team going in. Still, we need to understand there are a lot of games to be played. And take nothing for granted."

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