The Times West Virginian

May 18, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: ’Bama game comes at a perfect time

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN —  

There is something about the opening day of any football season that is special, and it’s a shame when a school uses it for something other than a special game, as many do while trying to ease into the year against a lesser opponent.
For the most part, West Virginia University has found a way annually to make the opener one of the season highlights, although there was a spell there under Bill Stewart when a parade of patsies took a paycheck and a beating to get the Mountaineers off on the right foot.
These included Villanova, Liberty and Coastal Carolina which followed a date with Western Michigan in Rich Rodriguez’s final season.
But 2014 figures to be one of the truly great opening games in the school history, the Mountaineers having lined up one of those extra-special games that you would expect to be seen only in the heat of the newly minted BCS playoff system at season’s end.
The game, which became a reality on Thursday, is a made-for-TV spectacular in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome and labeled the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The opponent is no less a football power than Alabama’s Crimson Tide, which goes into this season under Monongah’s own Nick Saban, who is fresh off a national championship this year.
While the Mountaineers of 2014 will be without both quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Tavon Austin, each about to enter his senior year, it still comes at a perfect time in the Dana Holgorsen era at the school, if it lasts that long.
It will be the start of his fourth year as WVU head coach, a time when most new coach’s programs click into full force, having recruited for three years and allowing his players – in this case both offensively and defensively – time to adapt to new systems.
With WVU’s recruiting at its apex coming off a 70-33 trouncing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl in January and with the move into the Big 12 Conference making Morgantown an even more attractive destination for a high school athlete than it has ever been, this game shapes up as anything but WVU serving as a sacrificial lamb to the Gods of Alabama.
As something of a late-comer to West Virginia, not arriving in the state until completing a full career as a big-city baseball writer had played out its course, I learned up close and personal how special a WVU opener can be.
My first came at old Pitt Stadium in 1996, and it set a standard for openers that was difficult to top, WVU shutting out a dismal edition of the Panthers in the collegiate debut of running back Amos Zereoue, who took his first carry more than 60 yards into the end zone. As it was, the only thing that slowed him down for the rest of his career was a bad case of turf toe in his final season before he left to begin a career as a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Two years later there was an opener that carried almost as much hype as this Alabama opener will, for Ohio State was coming to Morgantown, and the Mountaineers were dreaming of a national championship that season.
WVU was No. 10 on that opening day, a nationally televised game that began with a coin flip that featured Hall of Famers from each school, the Mountaineers’ Sam Huff and the Buckeyes’ two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin.
It was a game WVU was to lose despite Zereoue becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher, but it showed just what opening day is supposed to be … a festive, electric time when football is renewed between two good teams and a crowd that is charged with emotion.
Facing Marshall, as WVU does this year and has done often in recent history, is always one way to get all you want out of an opener, the Thundering Herd being an in-state rival which serves to create an atmosphere in which a football season can be born correctly.
But this 2014 venture will be something special, held at the site of one of the Mountaineers’ greatest victories … the Sugar Bowl upset of Georgia following the 2005 season in which Steve Slaton ran wild.
WVU and ’Bama have never met in football, which makes it a unique pairing, and matching the state’s favorite son in Saban against the state university gives it a special flavor that incorporates some of the same kind of feelings that would go with the now-defunct Backyard Brawl.
Rest assured it will come after a summer during which the discussion centers upon nothing much outside of the upcoming WVU opener, and when it does arrive the road south will be crammed with West Virginia license plates that will look more like the homecoming parade than game traffic.
Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.