No place like home?
MORGANTOWN - A week ago, Dana Holgorsen tried to convey a very specific message to his West Virginia football team, which was about to play its first game on the road.
Home field advantage ain't all it's cracked up to be.
This week? Well, forget everything he said last week.
When No. 16 West Virginia (3-0) hosts No. 2 LSU (3-0) Saturday night, if Mountaineer Field is rocking like it usually does for a night game against a marquee opponent, Holgorsen wants his team to welcome a new theory.
Home field advantage is real.
"We're certainly trying to convince our players of that,'' Holgorsen said. "If you're playing on the road you want to tell them that home-field advantage doesn't exist. When you're playing at home you want to tell them that home-field advantage does exist.''
A sellout crowd and a national television audience on ABC will watch the game. ESPN's College Gameday will be on campus, doing its three-hour Saturday morning pregame show from the Mountainlair plaza. If ever there was a time to embrace the atmosphere and run with it, this is it.
Still, as much as Holgorsen would enjoy watching his players ride a wave of emotion and momentum on Saturday night, up until the game actually kicks off he wants no part of it.
A big game? Sure. But he'd prefer it not be treated as any more or less significant than any other while preparations are being made.
"It's every bit as big as the last game was and it's every bit as big as the next game will be,'' Holgorsen said. "That's what we've tried to preach to our guys, that's it's more about us than who we play. And our job's to learn how to prepare to win a game and learn how to prepare to play in a game regardless of the magnitude of what the outside opinion might be of what the magnitude is.''
The magnitude of this one, though, is a bit different, or at least that's the take everywhere outside the WVU locker room. Seldom have the Mountaineers been in a position quite like this for a home game.
Eleven times in school history has West Virginia played a team ranked in the Associated Press top three at home, beginning in 1960 with a game against No. 3 Syracuse. Of those 11, seven were on network television - three on an ESPN platform, three on CBS and one on ABC. But the ESPN games were on cable only and three of the four games on over-the-air networks were carried only regionally.
Only the 1998 season opener against No. 1 Ohio State was broadcast nationally on an over-the-air network. That was a night game, too, and West Virginia went into it ranked No. 11. There was also more build-up for the game because it was the season opener for both teams.
But that was 13 years ago, and the focus on college football at the time was not as intense. Throw in the daylong presence of ESPN's College Gameday, along with the swirl of controversy and indecision over conference realignment - and WVU's unknown position in it - and it makes for an event quite unlike many others in the program's history.
Holgorsen's take? Let everyone else worry about it.
"For the program I think it's good. For the city of Morgantown I think it's good. For West Virginia University I think it's good,'' Holgorsen said. "But all of that will be handled through administrators. Our job as players and coaches is to focus on the game. Our job is to eliminate as many distractions as we possibly can and stick to the weekly routine as best we can.
"I know it's all positive, but that's more in the administrators' hands and I hope the fans have a good time with it. But we're going to do our best to eliminate as many of the distractions as we can and just try to play the game.''
That, of course, is going to be the most difficult part. In three games this season while West Virginia was slowly improving each week, LSU started in almost peak form. The Tigers crushed Oregon, which played for the national title nine months ago, 40-27 on a neutral field in Texas, then hammered outclassed Northwestern State 49-3 and bullied Mississippi State 19-6. LSU has also had extra time to prepare, having won in Starkville, Miss., last Thursday.
This is the fourth opponent out of four that has had at least some extra time to prepare for WVU - Marshall all off season, Norfolk State one extra day and Maryland an extra week.
Not that the Tigers need more time.
"It doesn't matter how many seniors they had last year, especially defensively,'' Holgorsen said. "They just replace them with guys that are every bit as good.
"They're obviously good. Their team speed is unbelievable and they have team speed on all three sides of the ball. It'll be a fun week. We have to make sure we just focus on the game and not worry about all the outside distractions.''
LSU will also have a weapon it did not have in its first three games. Wide receiver Russell Shepard has served an NCAA-mandated three-game suspension for violating NCAA rules in regard to talking to a teammate about an investigation. He caught 33 passes last season.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.