West Virginia the spot for star running backs this week

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

For such a small state, West Virginia has a surprising surplus of superstar running backs.

Two of the top three runners in the FBS -- West Virginia's Noel Devine and Marshall's Darius Marshall -- will go head-to-head in Saturday's Friends of Coal Bowl. Maybe they should call it the Fans of Handoffs Bowl this year.

"If you like the I-formation or the spread formation, you'll see (No.) 5 Darius Marshall and (No. 7) Noel Devine big in this game plan for both these universities," Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart said.

Both Devine and Marshall are averaging exactly 6.64 yards per carry this season. Marshall has run for 737 yards -- just four behind national leader Ryan Mathews of Fresno State -- for an average of 147.4 per game. Devine has 631 rushing yards for an average of 126.2 per game, which ranks third nationally.

Devine was named the Big East Player of the Week for his performance against Syracuse, even though his 91 yards rushing was his second-lowest total of the season. That was probably a make-up call by the league office, which inexplicably overlooked him the week before, when he had a career-best 220 rushing yards on just 22 carries against Colorado.

The junior has always had explosive speed, but this year he's being more patient in following his blocking instead of trying to do everything on his own. The giant cutback runs that marked his game the first two years have become a rare sight. But he's been just as dangerous as ever, breaking off a 71-yard run at Auburn and a 77-yard score in the Colorado game.

"From the standpoint of starting and stopping, I don't think I've ever seen anyone like him ever, with the exception of maybe Reggie [Bush]," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "He's very smooth, he's low to the ground and has tremendous vision. Every time he gets the ball in his hands, he can take it to the end zone. He keeps a lot of defenses up late at night."

At a listed 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Marshall has two inches and about 15 pounds on Devine. The junior crushed Memphis for 203 yards and three touchdowns and rumbled for 186 yards against Bowling Green. He's on pace to smash his sophomore total of 1,095 rushing yards.

"They are both small, but really good in their own ways," Thundering Herd coach Mark Snyder told the Charleston Daily Mail. "Noel is faster, but Darius has closed the gap there. Also, Noel can put his foot in the ground and go sideways. He can cut like nobody else in the country. Darius is a bit more physical.

"Darius is more of an upright runner. Noel gets lower to the ground. He just squirts out of there.''

Stewart agreed with Snyder's assessment and added that both players are good blockers and "team energizers." He predicted that both will play in the NFL for a long time.

"They'll both be household names," Stewart said.

They already are in West Virginia, a small state that's uncommonly blessed with two great running backs.