The early conclusion to the game was hardly early at all. It came at the of a 1 hour, 19 minute delay at that early stage of the fourth quarter. That stoppage came hot on the heels of a 3 hour, 3 minute holdup that came with 4:59 remaining in the third quarter.
On multiple occasions, officials conferred with WVU athletic director Oliver Luck and Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick as to the status of the game. Ultimately, the offices of the Big East Conference and Conference USA were involved in the process.
The vast majority of fans had left hours before Thundering Herd equipment managers trotted out onto the field and started pushing carts towards the visitors’ tunnel -- the first real signal the game might be off. WVU equipment managers followed suit not long after.
Finally, at 10:24 p.m. -- almost seven hours after the game began -- the official word came down. Those fans who were still taking cover in the concourse areas of the stadium were informed of the outcome over the stadium’s public address system.
"After consultation with the Office of the Commissioner of the Big East Conference and the Office of Commissioner of Conference USA, as well as the medical staffs of Marshall University and West Virginia University, and based on the pending weather forecast, as well as the physical and mental fatigue of the student-athletes, it has been decided that the football game between Marshall University and West Virginia University has been stopped in the fourth quarter, resulting in a final score of 34-13," Luck and Hamrick said in a joint statement.
Mercifully, a taxing day for all involved had ended. The crowd of 60,758 (the largest at a Mountaineer home game since a 2008 tilt with Auburn) was first evacuated from the stadium at 5:47 p.m., just after West Virginia’s Tavon Austin returned a third quarter kickoff more than 100 yards for a touchdown.
Fans -- at least those who didn’t see fit to leave -- filled the concourse levels. They packed into the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility. They jammed into the stadium’s two tunnels. For a period of time, the WVU marching band could not find room in a tunnel and was on the field, exposed to the harsh elements -- including wicked lightning strikes and torrential rains.
Those lightning strikes were the source of the delays. By NCAA rule, a game can not resume for 30 minutes after the most recent report of lightning in the vicinity of the stadium.
By the end of the game, lightning was also a source of controversy.
ESPN erroneously reported a fan had been struck by a bolt (it later changed its report to say the fan was “affected” by lightning) in the stands. Morgantown MECCA 911 and the West Virginia State Police denied that had occurred, and WVU issued a terse statement to set the record straight.
All the while, players were left to their own devices. They played games, talked to each other and generally tried to keep their minds occupied while waiting out the weather.
“I’m proud of the kids as far as how they handled the situation,” Holgorsen said.
“They didn’t gripe. They hung in there, and they probably would have been ready to play had we gone back out there.”
And while Marshall was facing a three-touchdown deficit during the course of the final delay, it was clear the Thundering Herd’s head coach, Doc Holliday, did not want the contest to end.
“I’ve never seen anything like tonight,” the second-year head coach said, echoing the thoughts of just about everyone else in attendance. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it happened. It was the decision of the conferences and the athletic directors. I had no choice.”
The wild circumstances surrounding the action almost made the football game an afterthought. But Mountaineer fans did get their first glimpse of Holgorsen’s schemes at work -- even if that glimpse was an abbreviated one.
They saw West Virginia score on six of its nine possessions. They saw a bit more balance (26 runs, 35 passes) than they may have anticipated. They saw nine players catch at least one pass -- in barely three quarters of play.
Mostly, they saw that their quarterback may truly be a bona fide star.
Geno Smith completed 26 of his 35 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Not known for his ability as a runner, he kept plays alive time and time again with his legs, evading Marshall rushers.
“He kept the play alive a lot early,” Holgorsen said. “He made some good plays on third down.”
“Geno is a great player,” Holliday offered. “He’s a special player.”
The Mountaineers’ defense wasn’t in midseason form, but it wasn’t bad either. MU only had one drive of more than 47 yards. It had four drives of four plays or fewer. West Virginia held a more than four minute edge in terms of time of possession.
But the focus coming into Sunday was about offense. That was evident from WVU’s entrance video, which boldly proclaimed “It’s Time To Bring The Power Back.”
It took awhile. The Holgorsen era got off to an inauspicious start. After a Marshall turnover on downs, WVU proceeded to go three-and-out on its first possession.
Adding injury to that insult, the Herd’s Andre Booker took the ensuing punt back 87 yards for a touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead for the visitors. It was the second-longest punt return in Milan Puskar Stadium history, trailing only a 97-yarder from East Carolina’s Derrek Batson in 1992.
The Mountaineers responded in short order, driving 71 yards in 10 plays and closing within six yards of the MU end zone. But a trio of handoffs to freshman running back Andrew Buie were snuffed out, forcing Holgorsen to send on his field goal unit. Tyler Bitancurt connected from 27 yards away to draw his team within 7-3.
WVU’s defense continued to stifle Marshall, forcing another punt. At the same time, the offense began to gain traction.
Smith was on-target, hitting receiver Devon Brown and Buie for 14 and 15 yards on consecutive plays to set up first-and-goal at the Herd’s 3-yard line. Two plays later, the junior connected with Ivan McCartney for a 4-yard touchdown, the first of the Holgorsen era, to give West Virginia a 10-7 advantage early in the second quarter.
A Marshall three-and-out put the Mountaineers back in business promptly, and Smith went back to working his magic. He scrambled for 16 yards to pick up a third-and-16, and completed passes to convert a third-and-10 and a third-and-9 later on the same drive.
The last of those conversions came in the form of a 15-yard touchdown pass to Stedman Bailey, giving WVU a 17-7 edge.
Another Herd three-and-out gave Holgorsen’s offense excellent field position to start its next possession. But the drive stalled at MU’s 26-yard line, and Bitancurt came on again to hit a 43-yard kick and make it 20-7.
It appeared the rout might be on, but Marshall had other ideas. It moved 72 yards in 10 plays -- including a 26-yard Rakeem Cato pass to Antavious Wilson and a 22-yard Tron Martinez rush -- before settling for a 25-yard Tyler Warner field goal on the last play of the half, making the score 20-10 at the intermission.
Early in the second half, Holgorsen had his first major tactical coaching decision to make, as his team faced a fourth-and-inches at Marshall’s 48-yard line. He opted for the aggressive play, keeping his offense on the field.
His boldness went unrewarded, as Vernard Roberts was stopped behind the line of scrimmage, giving the Herd excellent field position.
Cato, a true freshman, set about leading his team down the field. He connected with C.J. Crawford and Aaron Dobson to pick up a pair of third down conversions, and MU had a first-and-goal at the Mountaineers’ 3.
But the WVU defense held, and Holliday’s club had to settle for another Warner field goal to make it 20-13.
Momentum appeared to be shifting towards the underdogs from Huntington, but that changed in a flash.
Austin received the ensuing kickoff about four yards deep in his own end zone, ran out and across the field to his left before finding a clear alley for a cut-back, juking past Herd kicker Justin Haig near midfield and breaking clear for what was officially a 100-yard touchdown return.
“He had a good kick return with a good scheme by coach [Daron] Roberts,” Holgorsen said. “We had a plan and the kids executed it ... he was good in his return game. It’s something he will be good at every game.”
It was the sixth return of 100-plus yards in WVU football history, and the first since Shawn Terry turned the trick against Maryland in 2001.
But before that momentum could manifest itself for the Mountaineers, lightning struck in the area and the game was delayed, setting up the hours-long circus that proceeded to transpire.
Once play resumed, WVU added another touchdown just before the lightning returned, a 1-yard scoring run by freshman running back Vernard Roberts that capped an 11 play, 54-yard drive.
By then, only the most die-hard of fans were still around. All were part of a scene unlike anything else in West Virginia football history.