Return to Sports
by Chris Errington
(September 5) MORGANTOWN -- Oh what a difference a year makes.
In 1997, West Virginia opened the season as a prohibitive favorite over a Marshall team looking to gain respect in its first year of Division I football.
The Thundering Herd had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and despite a 42-31 loss, used the game as a springboard to a Motor City Bowl berth.
Tonight, the Mountaineers will reverse roles when they battle No. 1 Ohio State.
Again the game is at Mountaineer Field, but this time WVU is the underdog with everything to gain and nothing to lose.
The reason -- West Virginia's biggest concern isn't the Buckeyes, but rather proving its legitimacy as the nation's 11th best team.
A win over Ohio State would certainly do that, but so would a loss, provided it's a close, hard-fought one.
"I think all the pressure is on them," senior center Eric de Groh said. "We're coming in knowing that nobody expects us to win, so we need to show we deserve to play the No. 1 team.
"The longer we can keep it close, the more the pressure shifts to them."
That however will be a tough assignment. Even with an overwhelming majority of the 63,500-plus fans at Mountaineer Field pulling for them, West Virginia will be hard-pressed to defeat a Buckeye team loaded with talent.
Ohio State may have the nation's best receiving tandem in Dee Miller and David Boston and the top secondary led by Thorpe Award candidate Antoine Winfield. And that doesn't include linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer, considered by most sport publications as college football's best player, quarterback Joe Germaine, who was third in the nation in passing efficiency last year as a backup, and one of the nation's best special teams with punter Brent Bartholomew and kicker Dan Stultz.
"They have blue-chippers at every position," WVU coach Don Nehlen said of the Buckeyes. "But we have a few players of our own."
Nehlen is referring to running back Amos Zereoue, linebacker Gary Stills and a receiving duo in David Saunders and Shawn Foreman that led the Big East in catches the past two seasons.
But that's not all.
Quarterback Marc Bulger has made tremendous strides since posting West Virginia's second-highest total for passing yards in a season, nose tackle John Thornton is a preseason, second-team All-American and kicker Jay Taylor was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award last year.
"There's no doubt that this is my biggest game and that's probably goes the same for most of the guys in here," Foreman said. "But we've got to keep thing's in perspective. We can't put our entire season into this one game."
Although the two haven't played one another since 1987, WVU's players and coaches believe they know what to expect from Ohio State.
Offensively, de Groh said fans can expect the Buckeyes to load up the line of scrimmage in an effort to contain Zereoue.
"Why should we expect anything new?" de Groh said. "They'll come at us and try to sit on the run and force us to pass."
That's an option that sits just fine with Saunders.
"They can't cover us all game man-to-man," Saunders said. "When I score, I'm going to do a little dance. I may get smacked by coach Nehlen, but I'll still do it."
Defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap said the Mountaineers better be prepared to strap on their helmets. With six new starters and two others who made position switches, Dunlap expects the Buckeyes' offense to be basic -- brutally basic.
"They're going to line up and come right at us," Dunlap said. "They'll mix in a little play-action pass, but mostly they'll try to run the ball right down our throats."
Win or lose, the Mountaineers know one thing -- their bye the following week will be needed.
"If we win, this town's going to burn," de Groh said. "The week off will really help us calm down and get refocused. And if we lose, it'll do the same."