No doubts about it
MORGANTOWN - Bruce Irvin readily admits that the first time he lined up to face LSU, he didn't know what to expect.
Of course, Irvin grew up in Atlanta and in the heart of SEC country. He knows the caliber of football that's played there.
What he didn't know a year ago, when West Virginia went to LSU, was how the team he was playing for would stack up. Were the Mountaineers on that level?
"Yeah, I think everybody wondered that,'' the senior defensive end said. "And I think we proved we did.''
Indeed, West Virginia didn't beat LSU a year ago in Baton Rouge, but it wasn't because the Mountaineers were out of their league. The Tigers needed a punt return and fumble inside the 10-yard line to score their only two touchdowns in a 20-14 win.
So when the teams meet again Saturday night in Morgantown, the Mountaineers no longer have any doubts, right. Well, that's true.
But one gets differing opinions on whether they had any doubts last year, either.
"It's the SEC. They're supposed to be the best conference in the country,'' Irvin said. "It's the No. 2 team in the country. Young guys, they're probably thinking, 'Dang, those guys are big.' But they're the same as us. They put their pants on one leg at a time, same as us.
"Me and the guys that were here last year, we know we can play with them. We just have to go out there and play like we know we can.''
The No. 2 Tigers (3-0) will be in town for an 8 p.m. ABC game against the No. 16 Mountaineers (3-0) Saturday. While this is new territory for a team that has ever been to Morgantown, it's really nothing new at all. LSU has already played two ranked teams, Oregon and Mississippi State, away from home, and so Mountaineer Field isn't likely to intimidate the Tigers.
But nor are the Tigers likely to intimidate the Mountaineers.
"Honestly, I never feel that West Virginia is outclassed, period,'' nose guard Jorge Wright said. "We're able to compete with anybody we play. I don't think it would matter if we were going to LSU or LSU was coming here or whoever we play. They're a great team, but I feel like we're a great team, too.''
Still, even those who were willing to admit that there was some question in their mind a year ago admit that last year's performance at Tiger Stadium was a positive reinforcement.
"A lot of guys that played last year - me, Bruce, Keith Tandy, Julian [Miller] - know what we can do,'' linebacker Najee Goode said, speaking mainly about the defense. "And even the younger guys like Doug [Rigg] and Casey [Vance], just the fact that they got in the game, they know they can play with them. It's not like you're playing against an NFL team. We're playing against guys that are our age and peers. We hit them the same way we hit anybody else.''
In that game a year ago, LSU gained just 230 total yards and was forced to punt six times, as did West Virginia. Both teams turned the ball over twice. On paper, it was just about even.
And that should bolster West Virginia's confidence this year.
"That's huge. It's the No. 1 thing you can have,'' Goode said. "Even if you don't know what you're doing, if you've got confidence in your ability, that's huge.''
Those who played a year ago still kick themselves for letting the opportunity slip away.
"It's always in my mind that we let them off the hook last year,'' center Joe Madsen said.
"We can compete with anybody in the country,'' said wide receiver Tavon Austin. "That's what I took from last year.''
There are, of course, some big differences between the teams that played last year and the two that will meet Saturday night. LSU has a different quarterback, Jarrett Lee in place of the suspended Jordan Jefferson, and West Virginia lost seven starters from its defense. The Mountaineers also have an entirely new offensive scheme.
Because of those differences, at least one Mountaineer says this team has to prove it all over again. Irvin disagrees that West Virginia is somehow ahead of the game because they have last year's knowledge of how competitive they were in their pocket.
"Not really. We lost seven guys who saw that we could play with them last year,'' Irvin said. "We've got seven new faces and now it's the same thing. But once these guys get on the field, get some contact and realize we can play with them, then we'll start playing like we know we can play.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.