MORGANTOWN - Last year, the West Virginia-Marshall game started in the middle of the day, and ended in the middle of the night.
When WVU quarterback Geno Smith watches the film of that game, he's almost embarrassed. The Mountaineers were breaking in a new offense, and they were having their difficulties.
''We didn't know our (own) capabilities or what exactly we could do in the offense as far as adjustments go,'' Smith said. ''Now you look back on it, you're like 'wow, we could have done so much (more) and made it so simple,' but it was hard on us because we had to learn.''
The difference between then and now, he said, is like night and day.
''On offense, everyone has the same page and it takes a lot of time to do that,'' said Smith, who finds himself in the glare of the preseason Heisman Trophy hype after a junior season in which he completed 346 of 526 passes for 4,385 yards, 31 touchdowns and seven interceptions. ''We have that now, which I think is going to make us a better offense.''
That was the general sentiment among a lot of the veteran WVU offenders this week. It's the first game. There's more unknowns here than at freshman band orientation. Marshall lost a few studs on defense, including All-American Vinny Curry, who was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. But the Herd brings more than a few starters back, plus a couple of transfers from Boston College.
Will Marshall show some looks it didn't show the Mountaineers last season?
It doesn't matter to the Mountaineers.
''You've got to be good at what you do and make plays, that's the biggest thing,'' Smith said. ''We have to control our effort and make sure we're executing our game plan.''
It's the same, only different, on defense for the Mountaineers. In no way is Marshall figuring to see what it saw a year ago from the WVU defense, which has a new defensive staff, a new scheme, and a host of new, and young, players.
''They're going to run some plays that we haven't practiced,'' WVU co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. ''What we hope as a defensive staff is let the fundamentals of your base coverages, your base run responsibilities, take over. We can stop anything. There's a strength and a weakness to everything we do, just like there's a strength and a weakness to anything they do. So our job is if they do something we haven't seen, just let the fundamentals of our defense take over and we should be OK.''
So that's the X's and O's. Pretty typical stuff. But there's a bigger issue at play.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said Monday, after having watched all 13 Marshall games last season, that it was his belief the Herd ''played considerably harder against West Virginia than any other team last year.''
While Marshall coach Doc Holliday downplayed that, saying his kids have been working hard for months, and ''we embraced every game. We played as hard as we could every game. We have great respect for West Virginia and we expect them to win the Big 12. It's a great challenge against a great team. We think we're pretty good team.''
Holgorsen agrees with most of that.
''We expect them to be a better football team than they were last year, not just when they played us, but also toward the end of the year when you watch the product they put out there,'' he said. ''That (offense) should not only be improved, but also specific people. Everybody wants to talk about (Rakeem) Cato the quarterback and (Aaron) Dobson the receiver, adding some speed with transfers in their secondary, but top to bottom going into (coach Doc Holliday's third year), you should see a better product out there.''
When Smith showed up in Morgantown three years ago, he knew nothing about the Marshall-WVU rivalry, the Friends of Coal Bowl.
''As the years have gone on, I've understood what it's all about, the hatred, I guess,'' Smith said. ''I'm not sure if it's actually hatred. I know the fans get into it. We want to beat them; they want to beat us. That's the gist of it for each game. There's a lot of anticipation, and it raises the stakes a little bit.