MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP)—The changing landscape of college football has so far left out West Virginia.
Ignored during recent expansion by the Atlantic Coast Conference that welcomed fellow-Big East schools Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the Mountaineers must be wondering what they can do to convince others they’re as attractive as bigger-market schools
Perhaps a statement game would help, and No 16 West Virginia (3-0) gets its chance Saturday night on national TV when it hosts No. 2 LSU (3-0) of the Southeastern Conference.
While West Virginia is maintaining the Big East’s commitment to recruit new members, the Mountaineers also are using the timing of the game to show it’s a school worth watching.
“Every time we go out on the field, no matter who the opponent is, it’s a chance to show everyone what we’re all about.” West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith said. “Being on the national stage, this one is going to be electrifying.”
There’s been speculation the SEC might be interested in West Virginia as 14th now that Texas A&M is set to leave the Big 12 for the SEC next season. And WVU has fared well in the SEC—since 2005, the Mountaineers are 4-2 against the league, not to mention 2-0 in Bowl Championship Series games that includes a win over Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl.
Players and coaches, meanwhile, are trying to tune out realignment talk.
“We’ve been focused on getting ready to play this game,” Smith said. “Everyone has to lock in and focus on the task at hand.”
That might be tough, considering all that’s been going on around campus this week.
ESPN’s “College Gameday” is making its first football stop in Morgantown. And West Virginia native Landau Eugene Murphy Jr.—winner of NBC’s recent “America’s Got Talent” competition—will sing the national anthem before the game.
In preparation, officials conducted a sweep of Morgantown this week to remove furniture and trash that could be used to start street fires that have been a part of postgame celebrations in the past.
The university also asked fans not to wear vulgar T-shirts that some fans adorned at a game earlier this season.
“The amount of eyes looking at our program, not only the football team, but the athletic program, the city and the rest of it, is good and I’m fired up about it,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.
LSU has come to expect this. The cowbells were out en masse in a 19-6 win at Mississippi State last week.
A sellout crowd and West Virginia’s most hyped home game in four years will greet the Tigers this time.
“Our guys enjoy that type of environment,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We will expect a loud crowd, expect a quality opponent and expect to play a tight ball game. Those things benefit us.”
LSU has a 35-game winning streak against nonconference opponents in the regular season. And beating a ranked opponent for the third time this season would give the Tigers momentum for their SEC schedule.
Shepard returns from a three-game suspension for breaking an NCAA rule that bars discussing ongoing investigations with teammates. He started nine games last season and had 226 yards and two touchdowns rushing and 254 yards and one TD receiving.
The key for the Mountaineers is Smith, who has career highs in yards in two straight games. But despite going 12-4 as a starter and being among the national leaders in passing, he has yet to beat a ranked team. And he has yet to see a swarming defense like LSU.
Last year in a 20-14 loss in Baton Rouge, La., Smith threw for two touchdowns but the Tigers limited him to 14 of 29 passing for 119 yards.
“This year’s a clean slate,” Smith said. “We have an opportunity to go out and play a good game, execute and win.”
Miles is casting a wary eye on Smith and wide receiver Tavon Austin, who’s also one of the nation’s leading punt and kick returners.
“Both of those guys are very good,” Miles said. “We are going to have to do a good job of trying to contain them. I think the defensive line has to realize that there’s more than just to rush the passer. There are certain responsibilities that they have to maintain. The focus has certainly been rushing the passer, but it’s also been on screens and the multiplicity of their offense.”
But what really tips the scales in either team’s favor could be the running game.
LSU’s 225-pound freshman, Spencer Ware, could expose a West Virginia defense with seven new starters this season. He had 107 yards against Mississippi State.
West Virginia has yet to put a complete game together, with poor play in the first half of the first two games and crashing in the second half last week at Maryland.
The Mountaineers rotate several young backs and are the only unbeaten FBS team averaging less than 100 yards on the ground. LSU has limited all three opponents to under 100 yards rushing and shouldn’t have much trouble against the Mountaineers, who are averaging 79.
“When facing their defense, you’ve got to take advantage of the little space that you have,” Holgorsen said. “They’re good, talented and rarely out of position.”