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Buckeye-savvy Nehlen wages war on OSU

by Joedy McCreary

SPORTS WRITER

(September 2, 1998) MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia University football coach Don Nehlen has plenty of ties to the state of Ohio.

For example:

As a high school coach in the Buckeye State and a 9-year head coach at Bowling Green, Nehlen became a disciple of "Big Ten-style" power football.

After spending three years as Bo Schembechler's assistant at Michigan, he grew to appreciate the league's distinct brand of smash-mouth football.

And Nehlen was a candidate for the Buckeyes' coaching job in 1987 when Earle Bruce left as coach. OSU opted for John Cooper.

That's why Saturday's season opener with the top-ranked Buckeyes has taken on added significance for Nehlen on a personal level.

"But I don't know that it gets any more special than playing the No. 1 team in the country," Nehlen said. "I've got an awful lot of friends in Ohio."

Nehlen's three years in Ann Arbor taught him much, he said. He was an assistant at Michigan from 1977-79 before taking the West Virginia job.

"I was only at Michigan for three years, but I understood that Michigan didn't like Ohio State an awful lot, " Nehlen said.

The power structure of the Big Ten has changed since then, Nehlen said.

"Then, it was a two-team league, with Michigan and Ohio State," Nehlen said. "Now, all those teams can beat you, teams like Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa. Michigan and Ohio State are still the class of the league. When I was in the Big Ten, it wasn't that competitive."

At WVU, Nehlen has had one other meeting with Ohio State, a 24-3 loss in Columbus in 1987. Saturday's opener marks OSU's return trip to Morgantown.

Keeping the Buckeyes on WVU's schedule could be a coach's nightmare, Nehlen said.

"You have to be careful how you schedule," Nehlen said. "There are merits to playing Ohio State. But you can not overschedule yourself. You can't do that to your program.

"I've followed Ohio State for some time," Nehlen said, "and I don't remember them having this many players back."

Nehlen said Saturday's game will be WVU's toughest opener because of the Buckeyes' ranking and their proximity. Columbus is 210 miles from Morgantown.

"Oklahoma's the only team we've played that has the pedigree Ohio State has," Nehlen said. "But when we went to Norman, our program was in its infancy. Now, we've won some games and been to some bowl games."

Nehlen contrasted this year's opener with the Marshall game in 1997. WVU squandered a 25-point lead but rallied to win, 42-31.

"Last year vs. Marshall, it was a lose-lose situation," Nehlen said. "Regardless of what we did, it didn't matter. The tables are turned now."

And the Buckeyes find themselves on the hot seat. Cooper complained that he would rather open the season against a predictably weak opponent, rather than No. 11 WVU.

"We didn't get a patsy, either," Nehlen said. "I'm anxious to see what Ohio State is getting, too. I'm anxious to see what we can get in a game situation."

MOUNTAINNOTES:

Bridgeport High product Zach Anglin will be WVU's holder, Nehlen said. A true freshman, Anglin competed for the starting punter's job, which was claimed by Jay Taylor.

Middle linebacker is also a concern for Nehlen. Converted fullback Mark Plants is listed as the starter but freshman Kyle Kayden has also made strides.

True freshman Antonio Brown, pegged to return kicks and possibly punts, sprained an ankle and is questionable for Saturday's game, Nehlen said.