MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s new web site http://thesignalcaller.com.
By Jed Drenning for WVUsports.com
September 24, 2010 11:01 AM
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Surfing the web this week in preparation for West Virginia’s highly anticipated trip to Baton Rouge, I came across a laundry list of quotes and narratives describing the LSU game night experience. It’s an atmosphere considered by many to be incomparable in college football circles.
Iconic Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant compared the noise level at Tiger Stadium to “being inside of a drum.” In a 2009 interview, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s definition of unfair was playing against LSU in Baton Rouge. Over the years the Tigers’ home turf has notched the top spot in a host of “toughest places to play” lists ranging from The College Football Association (1987) and The Sporting News (1989), to Gannett News Service (1995) and Sport Magazine (1998).
Then of course you have the legendary “earthquake game” in October of 1988. The crowd’s reaction to the winning touchdown scored against Auburn that night was so loud it allegedly registered on the seismograph in the school’s Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex roughly 1,000 feet from the stadium.
No matter how you stack it, there aren’t many places in sports so daunting that when you arrive in town you play not just against the home squad but against the venue itself.
Make no mistake about it: Tiger Stadium is such a place.
A September evening in the Louisiana Bayou can be an unforgiving place for gridiron visitors. Death Valley is hostile, it’s humid and it’s loud. All three of those factors could work against the Gold and Blue aggressors from the north Saturday night.
When a team prepares to embark on a trip into an environment such as this, one word invariably surfaces throughout the week: communication.
Anyone who saw Maryland’s first offensive series at Mountaineer Field last Saturday appreciates the impact an energized packed house can have on the visiting team’s ability to function when they’re unable to exchange calls and information. Facing a third and 16, the Terps came out of a timeout only to get flagged for a false start. The WVU crowd responded by taking things up a few decibels.
Unable to communicate at the line, Maryland failed to get a play off and was called for delay of game – twice. The crowd recognized the Terps’ frustration and grew louder each time. It was like tossing an incendiary device into a pot belly stove. By the time Maryland QB Jamarr Robinson finally got the snap off he was facing a lost cause from his own 3-yard line with a third and 26.
The scenario chronicled above is exactly the kind of Keystone Cops meltdown the Mountaineer offense will be trying to avoid itself this week in front of 92,000-or-so vocally charged Tiger fanatics. In a perfect world, most offenses defer to some level of verbal communication to trade intelligence either in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage - just as many units these days communicate with hand signals. Like many teams, West Virginia typically fuses elements of each of the two into its attack. This enables the WVU offense to go back and forth between the two types of communication at any point in a game, or to lean more in one direction than the other if the circumstance warrants it.
As such, it might be said – or signaled (pardon the pun) – that the Mountaineers are built to withstand an earsplitting atmosphere in which they become verbally handcuffed. Games like this one at LSU are one of the key reasons teams have non-verbal cues to begin with.
Geno Smith agrees.
“The noise won’t really change how we communicate,” said Smith, a much more advanced quarterback today than last September when he was forced into action at another vaunted SEC venue: Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Bill Stewart echoes that sentiment, suggesting there’s always the risk of stumbling into a self-fulfilled prophecy under these circumstances.
“If you make a big deal out of the noise, then it becomes a big deal,” said Stewart.
Noise, after all is just that. This obviously isn’t a first for the Mountaineers. West Virginia has encountered a number of environments through the years in which hearing was rendered impossible by crowd noise. It seems pretty black and white. You can either hear, or you can’t. There’s no such thing as deaf minus three.
“I told our coaches that we don’t have to be in the exact perfect play every time out there. We’ve got good plays. You don’t have to audible every single time into the absolute perfect match-up,” Stewart added. “We’ve got things that work. If you get caught up in doing too much of that and changing every play, that’s when your communication starts to break down and you get knocked out of rhythm. Make a call and go with it. Use our base rules. The problems arise when you start to try to check into a perfect scenario. There aren’t many perfect scenarios in the game of football.”
Close your eyes and imagine the scene at 9 p.m. ET Saturday when the Mountaineers step onto the field and see Tiger Stadium transformed into a blast furnace full of raw meat and gunpowder. Now imagine West Virginia silencing the crowd. Dating back to a 2000 Music City Bowl win over Ole Miss, the Mountaineers have harvested five scalps in their last six games against SEC competition.
Will Saturday night be another?