MORGANTOWN — The preliminaries are over.
Football season comes back in full flower at Mountaineer Field today with the arrival of arch-rival Virginia Tech.
The game kicks off at noon and will be televised on FS1.
West Virginia has a 28-23-1 lead in the series but has lost 7 of the last 10 contests.
And for West Virginia, there's a whole lot more at stake than the Black Diamond Trophy.
You probably have forgotten what that cherished lump of coal which they play for looks like, as it hasn't been in the possession of the Mountaineers since Virginia Tech took it from them on Oct. 2, 2004, when an unranked team of Hokies upset No. 6 WVU, a 19-13, at Lane Field in Blacksburg, Virginia.
That was the first of three consecutive Hokies victories followed by a suspension of the series. That's 17 years ago, so long ago that Rich Rodriguez has finished off his WVU career, moved on to Michigan, to Arizona, Ole Miss and Louisiana-Monroe while Neal Brown was coaching wide receivers and quarterbacks at Sacred Heart.
Virginia Tech came into this year unranked but up after stunning No. 10 North Carolina and adding a victory over Middle Tennessee, allowing the Hokies to jump to No. 15 in the nation. On the other hand, WVU lost its opener at Maryland before beating an LIU team that might not have been able to beat Brown's old Sacred Heart team, 66-0.
Yet WVU enters this game a 3-point favorite, which may be more a tribute to Mountaineers' fans and the home atmosphere than to the players, who are still attempting to prove themselves worthy of being favored over a ranked team.
That, of course, begins at quarterback for WVU, with Jarret Doege having arrived at his time to step up and put the team on his shoulders.
Like all quarterbacks, he is not dependent entirely on himself, for his offensive line must show vast improvement, especially at the tackle spots to keep Tech's furious pass rush off him. His wide receivers must catch the ball, something they have shown improvement in and the entire offensive line and the coaching staff must find a way to get running room for Leddie Brown.
In the end, WVU is built with Brown as the foundation off whom the quarterback works, not vice versa.
Make no mistake, fighting off the pass rush is crucial. In the upset of North Carolina, the Hokies collected six sacks and Doege's mobility doesn't beg to have him spend the day under pressure.
"They do a good job of keeping it simple for their linebackers and they play downhill," Brown said. "They hold double teams very well. They're really good using their hands and getting off individual blocks. They’re good players and do a really good job within their scheme, but we have to get better. Fundamentally, we have to get more physical up front and that’s a challenge for us this week.”
In some ways this game's theme sets up matching dissimilar quarterbacks who face similar situations.
While Doege isn't mobile enough to present a moving target, he is capable of making throws and, at his best, stays away from making big mistakes.
Tech's quarterback is the opposite. Braxton Burmeister is a running weapon but still trying to grasp the passing game.
It hasn't presented a problem for the Hokies, yet. He has started six times and won five as the coaching staff of Justin Fuente has created a run-first culture.
"Offensively, they want to run the ball. That's not a secret," Brown said. "Burmeister is a dual threat. He's really fast."
How fast is he?
Think Pat White, maybe.
Tech's game notes say he is their fastest player, posting a speed of 22.53 mph via their GPS tracking technology.
"You don't see that very much at quarterback," Brown said. "He runs away from people.."
Burmeister has completed 63 percent of his passes over his last three games, although not for much production, registering 523 yards and three TDs with one interception.
It well may come down to which quarterback makes the fewest mistakes in the passing game, which has been a WVU emphasis all off-season.
"We talked a lot about it in Game One on the routine plays and taking out the bad plays, which is critical at that position," offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said this week. "He took those steps in Game Two, but it's hard sometimes to evaluate that with how the game kind of developed.
"But he's owning those steps and knows what we've got to do to make routine plays and (keep) his pocket presence, which is something he's going to continue to work on to make sure we make the right decisions in the pocket. He's taking steps and that' a weekly thing. It's such a volatile position — you're at the point of contact always at that position, so it's a grind each week."
With Oklahoma in the wings next week for the Mountaineers in Norman, the importance of this game is magnified far beyond what a normal early season non-conference game warrants.
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