The Times West Virginian

Sports

April 21, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- Summer, Alabama will be used to get WVU’s mind right

MORGANTOWN — The ink had barely dried on the final reports out of West Virginia’s spring practice when thoughts turned forward toward the lazy, hazy days of late summer, days that will bring us into football season with a game that can either change the entire image of WVU football or sour it even further.

West Virginia opens its season against an angry Alabama team, ranked No. 5 in the pre-pre-season rankings in Atlanta in the Chic-fil-A Classic on Aug. 30, and a Crimson Tide team coached by favorite son Nick Saban.

Angry?

They are looking to avoid three straight defeats, having suffered as difficult a loss as any Alabama team ever suffered against rival Auburn last year to take it out of the National Championship picture, then losing a “who cares” follow-up bowl game to Oklahoma.

In some ways it is a crazy game for a rebuilding West Virginia team to get itself into, not like in the past when they opened the season against national powers. The last time they did it was in 1998 when the Mountaineers hosted No. 1 Ohio State and were beaten, 34-17, turning what they had hoped would find them as contenders for a national title into a team that had little to play for the rest of the way.

And then, in 1994, following an unbeaten regular season in 1993, they came across No. 4 Nebraska, a team ready to make a one-sided run to the national title, beating WVU, 31-0, in its first — and closest — game of the year.

Why would WVU agree to such a game as Alabama in a season in which it ended spring practice without knowing who its quarterback will be, coming off a 4-8 season?

Obviously, the answer is spelled M-O-N-E-Y, but is $3 million worth a game that doesn’t seem to be in WVU’s best interests? … unless it wins.

Wins?

Could WVU actually pull off an upset?

JuJuan Seider, the Mountaineers’ running back coach and one-time quarterback, believes having that game looking them in the eye all summer will drive them to heights they might not reach without it.

“It’s going to drive our guys,” Seider said following the spring game. “We thrive on being the underdog in those type of situations and always have. That’s what makes us West Virginia. When no one else gives us a chance, we stand up to the competition. We go punch them in the face,” he said.

The words echoed loudly … “That’s what makes us West Virginia,” he had said.

“We thrive on being the underdog …

“When no one else gives us a chance, we stand up to the competition … ”

This is a state of mind, a mentality, the kind of state of mind and mentality that the coaching staff will spend the summer installing into a West Virginia team that is certainly the underdog in this game.

“That’s the mentality we have to have,” Seider said. “We can’t go in there and hem and haw about them. We’re pretty good, too. The last time we played in the Georgia Dome, we were successful. That’s the mentality we have to have, even if you have to force yourself to play that way.”

You might recall the last time WVU did play in the Georgia Dome. It was a game that normally would be played in New Orleans, a Sugar Bowl game, but Hurricane Katrina had wreaked destruction upon the city, forcing the game to be moved.

West Virginia played Georgia and was the underdog but came out and buried the Bulldogs under a hurricane of their own, scoring four touchdowns in the first 15:50 of the game, then surviving a Georgia rally when punter Phil Brady earned a key first down on a fake punt play, leading to a 38-35 victory.

That is how West Virginia remembers the Georgia Dome. And more.

“This is a Big 12, SEC matchup,” Seider said. “That’s the kind of game you come to West Virginia to play. This is a great matchup. They are at the top and if you are going to get there, this is how you get there. Win that game and it jumpstarts everything.”

That is what the team will hear all summer. While the August practices will be aimed at making the team better, while Alabama will be targeted only the last week or so, the driving undercurrent of the days in the weight room and the hot days of summer camp will be Alabama.

“It’s motivation. You can’t work this hard from winter to spring ball and then take time off. You have to hold this level now,” Seider said. “You have to push that much harder. There’s more kids coming in. You hope you are building leaders for them and to help you recruit.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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