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September 4, 2013

Mountaineers prepare for hostile road game

MORGANTOWN — For the most part, the most intimidating thing about a journey to Oklahoma is the twisters that ravage their way through the section of America’s midlands known as Tornado Alley, but in its own way a journey to Norman’s Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium is as intimidating to a football team.

This week, rather early in a football season still in its infancy, West Virginia University must travel there for the first time since 1982 to tackle the Oklahoma Sooners — or at least try to — in a game that could be telling toward the Mountaineers’ Big 12 season.

The 1982 trip resulted in a rare Oklahoma loss at home under Barry Switzer, Don Nehlen waving his Hall of Fame coaching magic with a new quarterback named Jeff Hostetler, who would go on to become a Super Bowl hero and Nehlen’s son-in-law, emerging with the victory.

But Oklahoma doesn’t drop many decisions in what is one of those cathedrals to college football around America, coach Bob Stoops producing an 82-5 record at home over 15 years.

For an idea of how early this is to be moving into conference play, consider it is the earliest date Oklahoma has ever played a conference game.

This, of course, has led WVU coach Dana Holgorsen to be barraged with questions about whether he’d rather play the Sooners in the season’s second week or, considering his is an inexperienced team, much later, say the 12th week.

“Second week, 12th week, I don’t know if it matters,” he said. “The truth of the matter is I’d like to play them never, because they’re pretty good. It starts week 2. I don’t know if that’s good or if that’s bad.”

What Holgorsen does know from his time bouncing around the Southwest at places like Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State is that Oklahoma’s stadium is an intimidating environment with the stands pressing down upon the field and nearly 85,000 hostile fans about to greet a really young team.

“It’s a new experience for about 30 to 35 of our guys who will be traveling there, but we will not use that as an excuse,” Holgorsen said.

It is almost one of those you-have-to-be-there-to-know-what-it’s-like things.

It is a sea of red, 85,000 strong, the stands seemingly growing straight up out of the sidelines, sitting so close to the field you wonder how it is that no one has ever drawn a flag for jumping out onto the field to tackle a breakaway opponent.

Holgorsen spent part of his 2 p.m. team meeting Tuesday explaining exactly what it is like going to Norman, Okla.

“Part of our job is to prepare them not only for what they are doing on all three sides of the ball but also this is a new experience for 30 to 35 of them who haven’t traveled with our team. That’s a lot of inexperience ... can’t use it for an excuse.

“We’ll do our best to let them know what to expect in Norman.”

And that is?

“The atmosphere is hostile. It’s rowdy. It’s loud. There’s approximately 85,000 people and they are about from here to here (Holgorsen points at an area about 5 feet wide) on top of you. It’s much like Oklahoma State was last year, right on top of you.”

Holgorsen said it’s probably “an Oklahoma thing” because the crowd is that close to you at Oklahoma State and Tulsa.

“I’ll tell you, literally, the chairs are up against the wall and the people are right there. Is there a competitive disadvantage to it? No, it’s just a distraction, and there are many distractions you have to be able to overcome on the road. That’s just one of them.”

A year ago WVU got a look at one of the tough places in the country to play when it traveled to Texas and pulled off an upset, but Holgorsen said that will do nothing to help his team get ready for this.

“I don’t view being at Texas as having any advantage for us. Each place is different; each place is unique,” Holgorsen said. “I view at Oklahoma as hard a place to play as anywhere else.

“Ultimately,” Holgorsen continued, “you have to have some guys who can block all that stuff out and go play football. Is it hard to play there? Yeah. Is it hard to play at Texas? Yes. Is it an impressive place? Absolutely, it’s a very impressive place.”

NOTES: Defensive end Dozie Ezemma broke his foot and ankle in the William & Mary opener and is out for the year. Being a senior, it may have been his last game with WVU. Ezemma was an important special team player for the Mountaineers, the third special team player they have lost. ... Wide receiver Kevin White remains day-to-day as he tries to come back from what Holgorsen called a foot injury.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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