By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The task is a tall one for unranked West Virginia University, strolling into Norman, Okla., a 21-point underdog before 85,000 crazed fans in crimson and cream, playing in a stadium where Sooners’ coach Bob Stoops has lost but 5 times in 87 games and going against the nation’s No. 16 team, Oklahoma.
It is so tall, in fact, that someone suggested to Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen that about the only chance his young team — which barely survived by a touchdown against William & Mary — had to walk out out of Memorial Stadium with a victory was to play a perfect game.
You could almost see Holgorsen rankle at such a suggestion.
One suspects, from his reaction, he would rather have heard that the Mountaineers only chance would be devine intervention.
“Perfect game?” said Holgorsen. “You can’t ever play a perfect game. That’s impossible.”
It is, of course, what every coach strives for, to get his team to play as close to perfection as possible … no missed assignments, no penalties, no dropped passes, no overthrown passes, no stumbles, no fumble … are you getting the picture?
Holgorsen wasn’t kidding.
No one plays a perfect game, except maybe Peyton Manning.
“We’re going to have to play well. I’ve been there four or five times, and they’re hard to beat at home,” Holgorsen said, before having a second thought. “They’re hard to beat on the road. They’re a good football team and have been for the 15 years that Stoops has been there.”
That, however, is not going back nearly far enough.
Oklahoma’s success hardly began with Stoops and it probably won’t end there, so deeply ingrained is winning in the state.
You probably have to go back first to Bud Wilkinson, who merely put together a 47-game winning streak in the 1950s, football’s equivalent to John Wooden’s 88-game streak in basketball at UCLA. Wilkinson was what you would call a winner.
As a player at Minnesota he was on three consecutive national championship teams, then even played on a College All-Star team that beat the NFL champions Green Bay Packers, 6-0, in what then was an annual meeting between the defending NFL champion and a team of college all-stars.
From there the coaches and All-Americans just flowed through Norman. It was so deep, the coaching, that when Chuck Fairbanks was there, before going on to coach New England, he had on his staff both Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson.
Both won national championships, Switzer at Oklahoma.
Over the years, Heisman Trophies and All-Americans found their way to Oklahoma, some of the names legendary in college football from Jack Mildren, who ran the wishbone, to Greg Pruitt to Billy Sims to Billy Vessels to Steve Owens to Jason White to Sam Bradford.
So it is that you play against not only this year’s team, but the legends of the past, and that can be intimidating, if you let it.
“I realize the Heisman winners and all that, but they played for them in the past and aren’t there anymore. These are the same people we are,” said WVU senior defensive end Will Clarke. “That’s how I approach it.”
So, yes, it will be difficult, but a perfect game?
“To ask our guys, especially those who are inexperienced, to play a perfect game — that’s impossible,” Holgorsen maintained.
However, while there will be mistakes, Holgorsen maintains they don’t have to be fatal mistakes.
“It’s how you react to the mistakes. It’s how you react to having a holding call and being third-and-15. We’ve got inexperienced guys, but those guys need to grow up. They need to embrace the fact that they are being put in a challenging position, which I find to be opportunistic,” Holgorsen said.
“To have the opportunity to play in front of thousands of fans and to be on national television and play against a very good opponent gives them all a chance to get better.”
Win the game. In the end, that’s the goal, not playing a perfect game.
“Our goal is to win one game a week,” Holgorsen said earlier this week. “That’s all we said last week. We want to improve on all three sides of the ball. When I address the team today, I’m going to describe what they’re getting into and make sure they’re prepared to travel, line up and win the game. We’ll do our best to win the game and improve on all three sides of the ball.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.