By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This is the week everyone connected with West Virginia University has waited for, the week when the Mountaineers play Baylor in their first Big 12 game.
After decades in the Southern Conference and as an independent and then with the Big East, always pushing and scratching and clawing for national respect and recognition under such coaches as Pappy Lewis, Gene Corum, Jim Carlen, Bobby Bowden, Frank Cignetti, Don Nehlen, Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart and Dana Holgorsen, WVU moves full time into the big time.
They do so with a game that shapes up as one of the highest scoring and most exciting ever in Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, matching Holgorsen’s high flying offense against Art Stiles offense at Baylor, an offense averaging 51 points a game itself in a year removed from presenting football with its Heisman Trophy winner in Robert Griffin III.
A big game from WVU’s quarterback Geno Smith could give him a huge jump in the Heisman Trophy race this season.
A sellout crowd for homecoming is expected to make this even more of an event than it might have been.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of excitement about joining the Big 12 since it came out over a year ago. There hasn’t been a Big 12 game yet,” Holgorsen said during the weekly Big 12 coaches’ conference call. “There’s a lot of anticipation — not only in the state of West Virginia but across the country with West Virginia being in the Big 12.”
Such will be the hype all week that it could serve as a distraction, although Holgorsen vows that will not be the case.
“There will be a lot of eyes on us, which we’ve had before,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of experienced kids and a program that’s used to winning and used to being in the national spotlight, so I don’t think it will take away from any of our preparation.”
Then he went a step further than saying he didn’t “think” it would take away from the preparation.
“We won’t let it become a distraction,” he vowed.
He also offered the opinion that moving into conference play with all the hype surrounding it will not deter Smith from putting together his fourth consecutive big game, the quarterback entering play ranked fourth in the nation in passing efficiency and possessing 12 touchdowns without an interception this season.
“There’s been expectations on his shoulders for quite some time now, being the Big 12 preseason Player of the Year and all that stuff,” Holgorsen said. “His way of handling expectations is to be humble about it and ignore it and just get back to work. He’s got to show up, watch a bunch of tape, figure out what the defenses are doing, what the offensive game plan is, and then go out there and try to execute.”
To ease the pressure on Smith, Holgorsen has maintained all season long that to win it is a team effort, and that might even be why in the first two games he ran the ball as much as he threw it.
“We’re not saying to our team it’s up to Geno to win us games. We’re telling them this is what the plan is, and you obviously have to help Geno and go out and do a good job,” he said. “He’s handled the expectations well and I don’t see him changing anything.”
What Holgorsen does want to see his a change in the atmosphere around the game with it being homecoming and the start of conference play.
Holgorsen was critical of the atmosphere for the Maryland game.
“We’re looking forward to a very festive and fun Saturday. I thought the energy and excitement level last week was very average, not only from a player’s standpoint but from a coach’s standpoint and the atmosphere standpoint. I expect that to be totally different this week, and we look forward to it.”
At the same time, though, Holgorsen knows he can’t have his players caught up in the going-ons.
“We talked about that yesterday. It’s the same thing we have been telling them for a long time. We are going to try to do our best to ignore the outside and just worry about what we’re doing on the inside and get into a routine and eliminate as many distractions as we can,” he said.
But what of Baylor and their first trip to Morgantown, which can be an intimidating trip for a visitor, even one that has played many years on this field.
“It’s a road trip. You never know what to expect when you take a road trip,” Stiles said.
He knows, though, that it should be a huge challenge for his team.
“I think it’s safe to say over the last decade they’ve been a pretty dominate football program and have not fallen off any since Dana got there,” he said.
NOTES — WVU’s game at Texas on Oct. 6 will be broadcast on Fox at 7 p.m. ... Wide receiver Tavon Austin was named the Big 12s Offensive Player of the Week after catching 13 passes for 179 yards and 3 touchdowns against Maryland ... Among WVU’s weekly award winners from the coaches was a familiar name, freshman walk-on running back Maurice Zereoue was named Scout offensive player of the week. He is the younger brother of all-time great Amos Zereoue.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.