By Cam Huffman
Owen Field at Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., has to be considered one of the iconic venues in college football. It’s the 15th-largest college stadium in the United States, now officially holding 82,112 fans, and last year against Notre Dame, 86,031 Oklahoma fans packed into the 90-year-old stadium, which has undergone major renovations three times, most recently in 2003.
More importantly, its a place where the Sooners seldom lose. OU has won more than 80 percent of its games inside the stadium walls, and from 2005 until 2011, the Sooners won 39 straight home games.
Since becoming the OU head coach in 1999, Bob Stoops has lost just five times on Owen Field’s natural grass surface. To put that in perspective, Dana Holgorsen lost the same number at Mountaineer Field during his first two seasons at the helm.
“I’ve been there four or five times, and they’re hard to beat at home,” said Holgorsen, who coached against the Sooners while at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. “They’re hard to beat on the road. They’re a good football team, and they have been for the 15 years that (Stoops has) been there.
“The atmosphere is hostile. It’s rowdy. It’s loud. There’s 85,000 people and they’re (right on top of you). Our guys are going to have to be able to handle that. I view at Oklahoma as hard of a place to go play as there is anywhere. Ultimately, you’ve got to have some guys that can block all that stuff out and just go play football.”
WVU found a way to handle similar distractions last year when it went on the road to Austin, Texas, and came away with a 48-45 win over the Longhorns in front of a record crowd of 101,851. Holgorsen, though, said each situation is unique, and he doesn’t think his team can apply much from that experience to what it will face this weekend, when the Mountaineers and Sooners battle at 7 p.m. on a Fox national broadcast.
What makes Memorial Stadium unique, he said, is having the fans almost on the field.
“It must be an Oklahoma thing,” said Holgorsen of the tight confines. “Tulsa’s like that. Oklahoma State’s like that, and Oklahoma is like that. Literally, the chairs (on the sidelines) are up against the wall, and there are people right on top of you. Is there a competitive disadvantage to it? No. It’s just a distraction, and there’s many distractions that you have to be able to overcome on the road. That’s one of them.”
Although its impossible to simulate that atmosphere at Mountaineer Field during practices this week, Holgorsen said it is important to at least explain to his team what it’s about to face on Saturday when the Sooners stripe the stadium for the Mountaineers.
“I do my best at explaining to our guys what to expect,” he said. “It’s kind of my job to prepare them for what they’re doing on all three sides of the ball, but also this is a new experience for about 30-35 guys that will be traveling to Norman that haven’t traveled before with our team. That’s a lot of inexperience. We can’t use that as an excuse, but we have to do our best to get them to understand how we travel and what they need to expect.
“Guys are going to make mistakes. It’s how you respond to those situations. We’ve got inexperienced guys, but those guys need to grow up.”
The WVU-Oklahoma matchup will mark the first Big 12 game of the season. Both teams were originally going to have an off week this Saturday, and the two schools agreed it would be more beneficial to make the WVU-OU game a television matchup and avoid the early break.
“The truth of the matter is, I’d like to play them never, because they’re pretty good,” Holgorsen joked when asked about the timing of the game. “But I don’t know if it really matters. We’re happy to be in the Big 12, and we’re excited about traveling to all the different venues in the Big 12. It starts Week 2. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but we’re going to prepare like we would any other game and have a good week of practice and travel on Friday.
“It’s a challenging situation, but I find it incredibly opportunistic. To be able to go to Norman and play in front of 85,000 on national TV against a very, very quality opponent is an opportunity to get better. Our goal is to win one game a week, and we want to improve on all three sides of the ball. Our job is to prepare to win the game.”
The ties between WVU and Oklahoma run deep. Not only are the Mountaineers’ win in Norman in 1982 and the victory over the Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl considered two of the biggest wins in WVU football history, there’s also a number of connections between the two coaching staffs.
Bob Stoops’ first offensive coordinator at Oklahoma was Mike Leach, who went on to Texas Tech and became one of Holgorsen’s major mentors.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was once the head coach at Arizona, where he coached with Bill Bedenbaugh and several others, who had coached with Holgorsen and Leach at Texas Tech. Bedenbaugh spent the past two seasons as the offensive line coach for the Mountaineers, before leaving to take the same position with the Sooners.
“We’ve competed against each other for 15 years,” said Holgorsen of the connection between the two staffs. “We’ve been to clinics together, and we hang out together. They know our offense better than anybody else out there. You’ve got to be careful with your signals, your tendencies and your route combinations, because they understand it so well.”
Last year’s WVU-OU matchup was one of college football’s best games of 2012. The Nov. 17 clash in Morgantown included two of the most amazing individual performances of the year as WVU’s Tavon Austin set a Big 12 record with 572 all-purpose yards — 344 on the ground in his first significant action at running back — and OU quarterback Landry Jones responded with 554 passing yards and six touchdowns to break his own school record. With numbers like those, Stedman Bailey’s 13 catches for 205 yards and four touchdowns were almost overlooked, and Geno Smith’s 320 passing yards and four scores seemed average.
The game ended on a Jones 5-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills on a fourth-and-goal with 24 seconds left on the clock as No. 12 OU improved to 8-2 with a 50-49 victory.
None of the key players in that game are back for either team, however, and both teams have made significant changes on each side of the ball.
“We can’t use it for anything,” said Holgorsen of last year’s film. “We can’t use it for offense. We can’t use it for defense, and we can’t use it for special teams. That was a perfect storm. Tavon is a great player and made a tremendous amount of plays to keep us in the game. But we haven’t watched that tape, and we won’t watch that tape.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.