The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 8, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU kicks itself over LSU loss

MORGANTOWN — As this season goes on and October turns to November, the West Virginia University football team is going to look back in horror at the chance it missed when it went to LSU.

While it’s true that we do not yet know the true strength of this edition of the Mountaineers, we can conclude from what we have seen that they are a good team in a bad league, a team that potentially can run the table in the Big East.

Certainly, trips to Connecticut and Pittsburgh will be challenges, for this Mountaineer team is not as strong as the unbeaten ’88 or ’93 teams, nor capable of displaying the explosiveness or swagger of the 2007 team that tripped over the final hurdle on the way to a national championship showdown.

But even going in, this team knew that it was scheduled for success, that it was a steel beam in a plastic league, a team that had the potential to grow along with some of its younger players into an unbeaten power if it could find a way to win at LSU.

Oh, it had heard how difficult that would be, about the horrors of playing in Baton Rouge before 90,000 Cajun loyalists who devour visiting teams as their Tiger mascot roars his approval, baring his fangs as if he were ready to tear Mountaineer meat from the bone.

This was Southeastern Conference territory, and legend has it that the football in the SEC is so good that the National Football League itself aspires to reach such perfection. It is a league with speed and size, the place where a Bear once roamed the sidelines and where players such Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker and Peyton Manning were as common as grits in Georgia.

West Virginia was just supposed to be the appetizer before the Louisianans chowed down on a huge pot of jambalaya that is the SEC regular season. These Louisiana Tigers were unbeaten and had possessed a defense unlike anything seen by a Big East team.

The problem may have been that the Mountaineers bought into some of the hype, even though they had won four of five previous games against SEC opponents over the past five years, to say nothing of having recorded victories against such other high-profile programs as Oklahoma, North Carolina and Georgia Tech.

As it turned out, LSU was hardly any better as a team than the Mountaineers were used to facing, probably not as good. And as for the intimidation factor, the fans were tame and the tiger mascot even tamer.

It actually surprised the Mountaineers, who didn’t realize just how false all the pre-game hype was until it was too late, having let the game slip through their fingers along with the football that they could not hold.

Jock Sanders is a senior, for example, and has been around. He was there when West Virginia beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, there when they went to Auburn, to Colorado. Add that to his upbringing in St. Petersburg, Fla., which is in the heart of SEC territory, and you tend to listen to him when he talks about the experience in Baton Rouge.

“It wasn’t tough at all,” he said. “Not at all.”

The crowd, the one that tailgated all day before a late-evening game? The roaring tiger? The heat?

No, said Sanders.

“I give credit to LSU on the victory, but it wasn’t how people said it was. It’s wasn’t tough at all. It wasn’t as tough as coming here is.”

Credit that to a WVU fan base that really knows how to put on a football show, even if it once sometimes went a bit too far, rocking the visitor’s bus, bouncing a garbage can off Miami coach Randy Shannon’s head and setting couches aflame to celebrate victory.

“We lost the game on a few plays early. On those plays, LSU dug a little deeper. They got the big plays that we didn’t get,” Sanders said.

Sanders was not alone in his assessment of LSU football.

Quarterback Geno Smith, making his first start in what was supposed to be one of college football’s most oppressive environments against an SEC team with a reputation for greatness, also expected a lot more than he got.

“No offense to LSU’s defense, but they are not the ’85 Bears,” said Smith, when the subject of the way LSU stopped West Virginia’s offense came up.

Now it probably doesn’t make sense to be downplaying the strength of the LSU defense after it injured Noel Devine and held him to 36 rushing yards, after it allowed WVU only 177 total yards and put Smith away with 107 passing yards, but they didn’t do in any kind of intimidating manner.

In fact, Smith doesn’t believe they were really very good. WVU was just worse.

“They are an average team. They put their stuff on just like us. It was just a game where we didn’t come out executing our best,” Smith said. “It was a game we just put behind us.”

In some ways, you hope Sanders and Smith are wrong, for if LSU and its home field weren’t a good or intimidating team, then that leaves the Mountaineers being … well, what they are, the best team in a bad Big East.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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