No. 16 WVU amped for visit from No. 2 LSU

The changing landscape of college football has so far left out

West Virginia.

Ignored during recent expansion by the Atlantic Coast Conference

that welcomed fellow-Big East schools Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the

Mountaineers must be wondering what they can do to convince others

they’re as attractive as bigger-market schools

Perhaps a statement game would help, and No 16 West Virginia

(3-0) gets its chance Saturday night on national TV when it hosts

No. 2 LSU (3-0) of the Southeastern Conference.

While West Virginia is maintaining the Big East’s commitment to

recruit new members, the Mountaineers also are using the timing of

the game to show it’s a school worth watching.

”Every time we go out on the field, no matter who the opponent

is, it’s a chance to show everyone what we’re all about.” West

Virginia quarterback Geno Smith said. ”Being on the national

stage, this one is going to be electrifying.”

There’s been speculation the SEC might be interested in West

Virginia as 14th now that Texas A&M is set to leave the Big 12

for the SEC next season. And WVU has fared well in the SEC – since

2005, the Mountaineers are 4-2 against the league, not to mention

2-0 in Bowl Championship Series games that includes a win over

Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl.

Players and coaches, meanwhile, are trying to tune out

realignment talk.

”We’ve been focused on getting ready to play this game,” Smith

said. ”Everyone has to lock in and focus on the task at

hand.”

That might be tough, considering all that’s been going on around

campus this week.

ESPN’s ”College Gameday” is making its first football stop in

Morgantown. And West Virginia native Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. –

winner of NBC’s recent ”America’s Got Talent” competition – will

sing the national anthem before the game.

In preparation, officials conducted a sweep of Morgantown this

week to remove furniture and trash that could be used to start

street fires that have been a part of postgame celebrations in the

past.

The university also asked fans not to wear vulgar T-shirts that

some fans adorned at a game earlier this season.

”The amount of eyes looking at our program, not only the

football team, but the athletic program, the city and the rest of

it, is good and I’m fired up about it,” West Virginia coach Dana

Holgorsen said.

LSU has come to expect this. The cowbells were out en masse in a

19-6 win at Mississippi State last week.

A sellout crowd and West Virginia’s most hyped home game in four

years will greet the Tigers this time.

”Our guys enjoy that type of environment,” LSU coach Les Miles

said. ”We will expect a loud crowd, expect a quality opponent and

expect to play a tight ball game. Those things benefit us.”

LSU has a 35-game winning streak against nonconference opponents

in the regular season. And beating a ranked opponent for the third

time this season would give the Tigers momentum for their SEC

schedule.

LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee threw for 213 yards and a score at

Mississippi State and will have an additional target in wide

receiver Russell Shepard.

Shepard returns from a three-game suspension for breaking an

NCAA rule that bars discussing ongoing investigations with

teammates. He started nine games last season and had 226 yards and

two touchdowns rushing and 254 yards and one TD receiving.

The key for the Mountaineers is Smith, who has career highs in

yards in two straight games. But despite going 12-4 as a starter

and being among the national leaders in passing, he has yet to beat

a ranked team. And he has yet to see a swarming defense like

LSU.

Last year in a 20-14 loss in Baton Rouge, La., Smith threw for

two touchdowns but the Tigers limited him to 14 of 29 passing for

119 yards.

”This year’s a clean slate,” Smith said. ”We have an

opportunity to go out and play a good game, execute and win.”

Miles is casting a wary eye on Smith and wide receiver Tavon

Austin, who’s also one of the nation’s leading punt and kick

returners.

”Both of those guys are very good,” Miles said. ”We are going

to have to do a good job of trying to contain them. I think the

defensive line has to realize that there’s more than just to rush

the passer. There are certain responsibilities that they have to

maintain. The focus has certainly been rushing the passer, but it’s

also been on screens and the multiplicity of their offense.”

But what really tips the scales in either team’s favor could be

the running game.

LSU’s 225-pound freshman, Spencer Ware, could expose a West

Virginia defense with seven new starters this season. He had 107

yards against Mississippi State.

West Virginia has yet to put a complete game together, with poor

play in the first half of the first two games and crashing in the

second half last week at Maryland.

The Mountaineers rotate several young backs and are the only

unbeaten FBS team averaging less than 100 yards on the ground. LSU

has limited all three opponents to under 100 yards rushing and

shouldn’t have much trouble against the Mountaineers, who are

averaging 79.

”When facing their defense, you’ve got to take advantage of the

little space that you have,” Holgorsen said. ”They’re good,

talented and rarely out of position.”