Tough Environment Awaits WVU In Road Test At OSU
MORGANTOWN — You ask any West Virginia football player his favorite songs and he’s guaranteed to have John Denver singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in there.
It is, along with the Mountaineer and his rifle, the pregame Mantrip, the crowd at Milan Puskar Stadium, the Mountaineer Marching Band and coming through the smoke roaring out of the locker room, what makes being a Mountaineer special.
But you ask those same players for their least favorite songs and you can be just as sure that Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” is on their list.
Playing football on the road is a challenge, and the last thing West Virginia needs now with just two games between it and a trip to the Big 12 Championship game and who knows what after that is this week’s upcoming trip to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to face a crazed Cowboy crowd in a 3:30 p.m.game on ABC.
See, in football, there’s no place like home and Oklahoma State normally makes the most of that. It’s been Dana Holgorsen’s job heading into as hostile an environment as Stillwater is to turn it into a non-intimidating trip.
Stillwater’s Boone Pickens Stadium is just a different kind of place to travel into, which could explain why over the last decade the Cowboys are 56-17 at home with 11 of those losses to ranked teams, matched by 11 victories over ranked teams.
While the playing surface remains 100 yards long and 53.3 yards wide with hash marks down each side and end zones at each end, at Boone Pickens the stands literally abut the benches, with little out of bounds room while the fans pounds the padding on the walls to create a unique cascade of noise.
WVU already has learned this year what it’s like to play in such a unique and hostile environment, losing its only game of the season at Iowa State, whose ambiance is hardly friendly and seeming to be intimidated by it.
Right from the get go, however, Holgorsen has tried to cast this almost as a trip to Disneyland.
The first words out of his mouth at his Tuesday press conference offered up what he was trying to sell his team on.
“OK, Oklahoma State. It’ll be another fun one, another Big 12 fun one,” he said. “I always like traveling to Stillwater, it’s as good of a college environment and facility that exists in college football.”
“Obviously, I’ve been there — this will be the fourth time I’ve been there at West Virginia — but I’ve been going there since 2000, as well, and saw the transformation take place over the course of 18 years,” Holgorsen continued.
“It’s a spectacular place and a lot of fun to go play there. We’ll be fired up to go. Hopefully, we play like we did four years ago when Dravon (Askew-Henry) was our MVP in the game against Oklahoma State. He’s obviously the only one that is still here from that team.”
It is no wonder, knowing about that game, that Askew-Henry buys in fully on what Holgorsen is selling to his team.
“It’s a good environment out there. The pads are hitting against the wall. It’s a fun place to play. We just have to come ready,” he said.
His memories of that day four years ago still glow in his mind.
“That was probably one of my best games ever. That set everything off. I had two interceptions. I hope I can get one this year,” he said.
One person who may not quite be ready to go on the road to Stillwater is defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, whose defense has been among the nation’s best at home but who has had problems on the road.
“I think a little bit of that deals with who we play,” Gibson said. “Obviously, with Iowa State and Texas, those are pretty good ball clubs.”
Indeed they are … and he might as well have added Texas Tech in there as the other true road game played this year. In those three games against nationally ranked opponents playing at home his defense was savaged.
Those three teams have combined to score 105 points, while WVU has given up only 83 points in six games at home or on a neutral field. The Mountaineers opponents in the three road games rushed for 573 yards, passed for 903 yards and gained 1,481 total yards.
In those three road games the Mountaineers gave up 46.7% of the total yardage it has yielded in nine total games this year … almost half the yards while they played twice as many games at home.
“You can see our kids’ confidence at home,” Gibson said. “They feed off the crowd. I’m sure that has a little bit to do with it.”
But there were other things, too, as Gibson noted.
“I don’t think we were ever behind all year before the Iowa State game,” he said. “So, we got behind, and that was the first time we had been behind, on the road, in a hostile environment. I think we got on our heels, and it was hard to recover.
“The same thing happened at Texas. We let them off the hook a few times with some pressures, and they made some big plays. Their crowd got into it. I think all that plays a factor into it.”
That is why David Sills says the most important thing in as hostile environment as they are going into is to “get off to a fast start.”