Friday, October 18, 2013
Winning at WVU is easier said than done
By Brandon Chatmon
A sign on the road into town reads "Welcome to Morgantown, home of West Virginia University."
Yet Morgantown, W.Va., has been unkind to visitors for the past decade. College football teams have come to understand that escaping Milan Puskar Stadium with a win is easier said than done.
WVU is 56-13 at home in the past 11 seasons (81.2 winning percentage), ranking 11th nationally. While changes in conference affiliations obviously have had an impact, Oklahoma and TCU are the lone Big 12 teams with better home records during that span.
Yet the Mountaineers haven't been as dominant at home since joining the Big 12 before the 2012 season. Last year was the first season since 2004 that the Mountaineers did not win at least five games at home, suffering home defeats at the hands of Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU, although they lost to the Horned Frogs and Sooners by a combined two points. WVU finished 4-3 in Morgantown last year.
This season the Mountaineers hope to begin to re-establish their excellence at home.
Mountaineers quarterback Clint Trickett throws in front of a highly partisan, yellow-clad crowd.
"The environment and being a home game is something everyone needs to take advantage of," coach Dana Holgorsen said. "It's so hard to win on the road, you better protect your home turf, and you better play well at home. And that exists here because it's an event. When it happens six or seven times a year, it's going to be something people take serious, and there's going to be a lot of people here, they're going to enjoy the atmosphere, and it's going to be loud."
The ultimate goal is to make playing at West Virginia one of the Big 12's toughest road trips. Holgorsen believes the Mountaineers' home atmosphere is very similar to the majority of Big 12 venues, yet at the same time, WVU brings some traits to the conference that are unmatched no matter how hostile a trip to Norman, Okla., Lubbock, Texas, or Manhattan, Kan., might be.
"Going out there is definitely something different," said Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard, whose team escaped Morgantown with a 50-49 win in 2012. "It's a hostile atmosphere a little different than some of the places we've played."
All three of WVU's wins this season have come at home, including its 30-21 win over then-No. 11 Oklahoma State on Sept. 28. While the long distance travel for Big 12 teams is a bigger issue in sports like basketball or volleyball, the school's east coast location still has an impact that the Mountaineers can use to their advantage. When Holgorsen talks to his team about defending its home turf, the third-year head coach focuses on one thing.
"Unfamiliarity," he said. "[We focus on] the other nine Big 12 schools being unfamiliar with what they are going to get themselves into. Those schools don't recruit the same kids that we recruit, so they didn't come on official visits here."
It's an interesting and overlooked aspect of the Mountaineers' presence in the Big 12. They are the lone school on the east coast, and they primarily recruit the northeast, east coast and Florida. Meanwhile the rest of the Big 12 tends to spend the bulk of its recruiting efforts in the Big 12 region. Thus whenever a Big 12 school makes the trip to Morgantown, there undoubtedly will be a portion of its roster that is experiencing a game at Milan Pusker Stadium for the first time.
"A lot of times guys that go to TCU or Baylor have taken three or four other Big 12 visits, so they kind of know what they are getting into," Holgorsen said. "We need to use that [unfamiliarity] to our advantage. Whether it helps you or not? I don't know. But we try to use that as an advantage."
It's unlikely to have a game-deciding impact on Big 12 visitors, but it is one of several things that make a trip to Morgantown unique.
"Going that far to play, playing in a different time zone, can affect you when you're traveling then playing at a place that's tough to play, against talented guys," said Ikard, who has started 43 career games at OU. "It is one of the more difficult trips you can take."
Winning in Morgantown has not been an impossible feat for Big 12 teams thus far, but it hasn't been easy either, meaning Texas Tech could have its hands full when the Red Raiders step on the Milan Puskar turf on Saturday.
"We're proud of what we have here in Morgantown," Holgorsen said. "Great fan base that gets excited about home games and makes it an event. If you don't protect home turf, you're going to have a hard time finishing with a respectable record in the Big 12. It's incredibly important, and you better take it pretty serious."