Awwwwww fuck. They are coming together—they are not supposed to be coming together—down there, a mass of kelly green meeting a mob of white, a vibrating, bopping mass, a flailing of arms and jostling of armored torsos, a big old carbonated mess. Marshall and Western Kentucky's football teams coming together in a bitter confluence; a fight.
This—and with more than a half hour to go before kickoff—is indicative of the stakes here in Huntington, West Virginia, the final, desperate death rattle of the mid major players in the Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA. The mid majors consist of any team not playing in a Power 5 conference, with the exception of Notre Dame. This Insignificant 6 (i6)—the American Athletic Conference, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Sun Belt Conference, the FBS Independents sans Notre Dame, and Conference USA, of which Marshall and WKU are members—finds itself, in 2014, more powerless than it has even been before. While the introduction of the college football playoff was met with huzzahs from the brahmins and cheered from the football factory floors, it has effectively killed whatever populist streak was left in college football; in essence, something hailed for finally democratizing the game has set in stone the pre-existing oligarchy.
Whereas, in the so-called dark ages of the BCS, an i6 school could find themselves, with a certain amount of esoteric conditions met, in one of the truly regal contests—the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, or Orange Bowls—which comprised the sport's pinnacle, they now find themselves banned from the penthouse. A four team playoff seems fair and right, of course, except the stratosphere has been reduced wholly by half, and there is hardly any room for David in the age of miniature brackets; it is all but assured that the four slots, chosen by a different set of esoteric conditions, will be comprised solely of Power 5 teams for the foreseeable future.
All of which serves to make this game, between the Thundering Herd of Marshall University and their new conference foes Western Kentucky—what an i6 name that is, the classic Directional U—more, not less, important. Marshall is, at 11-0, sitting in the hinterlands of the new playoff ranking system, 20 spots below the fourth seed; a win today against the Hilltoppers and next week in the C-USA title game, and they can at least politic for a spot, proudly roll that 13-0 out there and demand, with all the high ground perfection can be afforded, at least a glance in their direction, one final fight for David.
One wonders, looking down on the bitter confluence, if this crushing mantle is the reason for the altercation, if the Line-of-David stuff is all a bit heavy, especially when compressed beneath the peculiar West Virginian mien.
Steve Cotton, the voice of the Thundering Herd, is on the radio miles outside Huntington, and the sports talk is centered around not only the chance at perfection—this team would be the fourth in Herd history to run the regular season table—but geopolitics, which, outside of money—which drives it, considerably—is the great engine of college football. The general consensus is they were thrilled to be on the list, even with those Broncos listed ahead, but damn if that playoff selection committee doesn't seem to be using a different set of criteria for the Power 5 than the rest of us. But there's nothing that the boys can do but play their game and show their stuff, shadowy cabal and the big guns be damned …
And maybe that's why the Herd and Hilltoppers are going at it here, beneath a sky of cornflower and itinerant clouds. Beyond the scuffle lay the leafless hills, mottled brown like wild turkeys, and a cargo crane, oxidized russet like Wild Turkey, looms over the Ohio River and the painted brick of Huntington, casting long shadows over David's last stand.
Hilltoppers-Herd! Maybe not much to look at on paper to the casual fan, but the junkies are most likely giving the game a look, especially on a mild midday slate of Black Friday contests. There promises to be, if nothing else, numbers; dazzling, absurd numbers, engorged stat lines like a fat weightlifter's blood vessels. Both sides come into the game ranked in the top eight for overall offense. Brandon Doughty, Western's quarterback, is practically Jovian out there, controlling the field as if a God, bolts of lighting arcing across the sky; he is the NCAA leader in passing yards, the predominant reason his Hilltoppers sit only behind Mad Mike Leach's Palouse Pumas in aerial supremacy, real Death From Above.
His counterpart Rakeem Cato is no slouch either, perhaps the greatest signal caller in a program that's had a few, and if nothing else, a winner. With Devon Johnson in the backfield, the Herd can keep it on the ground as well, a well balanced machine.
The scoring is early and often; Western leaps out to a two touchdown lead, capitalizing on a Marshall turnover to hush the crowd before the Herd even has a chance to answer. The sides trade touchdowns repeatedly, seemingly scoring at will, bound only by the human failings of a manned offense. By the second quarter, the score is 28-21, and it becomes apparent that to view the game from the sidelines is to not truly view the game at all.
Only from the press box can what is going on be truly ascertained; Doughty and Cato are throwing with such masterful precision for such massive accumulations—a 75-yard touchdown from Doughty; 40 yards and six points from one Cato heave—that trying to keep pace with the players lends one an almost abstracted view, too fast and far to follow. The offenses are running so well, eating up the yards with the length and grace of a Baylor quarter-miler, that they are practically hallucinatory; the field appears smaller, like an arena league turf or Tudor electric football game, and the down system appears obsolete. What is ten yards to offenses like these?
Banality dictates a comparison to video games, but your average Madden match has better defense; on numerous occasions, Doughty or Cato escape just fleetingly from the gnashing maws of the linemen, roll into daylight, and find a receiver inexplicably left on their lonesome, nothing but green turf around them.
The feeling in the press box is one of whistling astonishment, the numbers coming in leaving the denizens—usually a voluble and jaded lot—wide eyed and laconic, children before a spectacle. "Well, that's a great final score," the correspondent for the Ashland Daily Independent says at 49-42. The game is at the half.
Here is i6 football at its very strongest, freer, for the most part, from heavy traditions and vicious scandals than the Power 5. And with one half of the game completely sloughed away, an almost pornographic subversion of the sport.
The halftime pause provokes thought, a searching for a psychic niche within which to fit this freak contest. From the unheralded names of the sport have come the moments that will define the first half of this decade in college football; the great whirling maelstrom of this contest and the 734 yard performance of Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday should mark 2014 as the epitome of the offense-first era, the high water mark for the huddle-less blurs currently in vogue, and the general feeling in the Ernie Salvatore Press Box is one of seeing the pendulum swing, swing so high and violently it may invert.
The offenses slow down eventually. There is but one score in the third quarter, a 22-yard run from Steward Butler which knots the game at 49 and sends the Marshall fans into histrionics. Doughty leads Western to a 10 point lead in the fourth, but the Herd close, and with a mere 39 seconds left, Cato finds the end zone to send the game to overtime.
And that's when Doughty does it. Kills hope. One throw for two points, fortune favoring the bold and all that kind of boring sports page shit, except real, organic; just one smooth release to the bottom corner of the end zone, what they call a pitch and catch, really, like paternal backyard bonding, and Western Kentucky does it, heads flashing like tarpon as they streamed onto the field, the grandstands emptying around them, shedding green for red in a cruel burlesque of the fall.
Perfection is dead, and David with it.