West Virginia’s coaching staff of Dan Stratford, Andy Wright and Nick Noble all had the pleasure of donning the Old Gold and Blue in the 2000s. They all had the pleasure of defeating Marshall in their time, and actually did it once as a trio.
At that time, the match was just another edition of the always-heated rivalry between the two schools in the Mountain State. In 2021, however, things are much different.
On Friday, the fourth-ranked Mountaineers are in Huntington to face the defending national champion No. 6 Thundering Herd for the 24th time in history, with kickoff set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+. Even Stratford, who helped the Mountaineers to a 2-1 overtime win over Marshall in 2004, acknowledges that the attitude in this derby has changed.
“With respect, it was just a different beast back then,” the WVU gaffer said. “Marshall have established themselves as a national powerhouse as a top-ten team in the country, and with all respect, they weren’t that when we played them…during my time with the program. You kind of saw it as an opportunity to get one over on your neighbors and on your rivals, but we were really, really looking forward to the fact that it should be a comfortable result. This is a very, very different test to that.”
As Stratford noted, the all-time series favors West Virginia, as they lead 16-6-1, with the Mountaineers taking the last match in the spring by a goal in Morgantown — but also as he noted, much has changed in each program to get them to this point.
For one, both teams have turned their recruiting strategies towards overseas talent, and have seen success doing it. While West Virginia’s roster is made up largely of European players, the Thundering Herd have a strong attacking core of players from Brazil, with players from all other corners of the globe. All four of Marshall’s leading scorers — Vinicius Fernandes (4 goals), Vitor Dias (3), Pedro Dolabella and Paulo Lino (both 2) — hail from the South American country, and they fit the stereotype of Brazilian footballers – skillful, clever, unpredictable.
Together, they’ve helped the Herd develop the third-highest scoring offense in the nation, scoring 3.2 goals per game.
“The good news is we’ve faced…many of them before, and we’re obviously able to combat that and have a plan in place in order to do so,” Stratford said. “Hopefully we take confidence from that, and we’re able to not just nullify the confidence specific from Brazil, but also from all corners of the world.”
There are few teams in the nation that can slow down Marshall, but West Virginia is likely one of them. Their formidable back line trio of Aaron Denk Gracia, Kevin Morris and Bjarne Thiesen — all of whom stand over 6-foot-3 — have laid the foundation for the 11th-stoutest defense in the nation so far, holding opponents to .383 goals per game.
They’ve made life a lot easier for the experienced goalkeeper Steven Tekesky, who has only made nine saves thus far — but for a save percentage of 82 percent.
But WVU’s defense isn’t just reliant on the group in the defensive third. Stratford has instilled a pressing mentality in his squad, hoping to disrupt teams and players in the relative security of their own side of the pitch. It has worked out, even leading to a crucial goal in the team’s upset of then-No. 3 Pitt.
“We’ve had a lot of trust in this back three and in Tekesky for a very, very long time, really since I got to the program and since some of those additions have arrived as well,” Stratford said. “So not to diminish their efforts up until this point because they’ve been fantastic, I really do think it’s been the collective 11 on the pitch at any one time that’s helped us in some of those defensive elements.”
Kickoff between the No. 4 Mountaineers and the No. 6 Thundering Herd is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+.