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WVU football: Tough test awaits for Holgorsen, No. 16 Mountaineers

By Jack Bogaczyk

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Down in Baton Rouge, there's a popular slogan surrounding LSU football that sprouted from Coach Les Miles' headwear a few years back:

"Fear the Hat."

Well, if you've listened to the run-up to Saturday's 8:12 p.m. kickoff at Mountaineer Field, it's not so much Miles' ballcap - or even his eschewing punts when it's "fourth-and-Les" - that worries West Virginia, it's those guys in uniforms he will bring with him.

You can dub this one "The Hat" versus "The Hair" - see WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen's breeze-blown, collar-challenging locks - but when the No. 2 Tigers face 16th-ranked WVU, it's going to be more about the LSU 4-3 defense that the Mountaineers' pass-first attack has to solve.

"They're as good as anything I've seen on tape," Holgorsen said.

In other words, it's going to easier to burn a couch than these Tiger stoppers.

Earlier this week, when the BCS musical chairs seemed to indicate that WVU's hopes of perhaps landing in the Southeastern Conference were discouraged, the Mountaineers were presented another slice of incentive in the Tigers' visit:

If you can't join 'em, beat 'em.

But how? I don't know that anyone at WVU has an answer for that, any more than Oliver Luck can tell you in which conference the Mountaineers will eventually wind up on the high-stakes FBS Poker Tour.

On Tuesday, WVU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh was talking about watching tape of Miles' team. He has been a major college line coach for a decade in the Big 12 and what had been the Pac-10. He can't recall seeing anything quite like this LSU bunch.

"I've played great defenses over the years at Oklahoma and Texas and USC, just a bunch of great defenses, just great defenses throughout," Bedenbaugh said. "The thing about (the Tigers) is they have great depth everywhere. And they play hard. Every snap.

"I mean, they don't have a guy that doesn't play hard. They're extremely talented, athletic, physical, they look the part and they play hard every snap. And that's tough to do. I haven't seen many defenses that have done that throughout the years. It's a hard thing to do."

Forget Miles on fourth down (LSU is 55-of-86 under Miles on fourth, but hasn't tried one this season). Holgorsen is going to have to try some different things, take some gambles - on first, second and third.

"The biggest challenge going against a defense that's good, talented and never out of position is you have to take advantage of the little space you have," Holgorsen said.

"We're going to have to throw into receivers that are covered. We're going to have to run the ball into people that are filling gaps. We're going to have to sustain blocks a little bit longer. If they're playing zone coverage and we get a guy open in the middle, that hole's going to close relatively quick.

"The speed of the game is going to have to increase more than it did last week (at Maryland), and the tight space that we have to take advantage of offensively, we have to take advantage of it. But wherever the ball is, they get there real fast, and they're pretty aggressive once they get there."

LSU hasn't traveled this far northeast for a regular-season game since winning at Boston College in 1947. Miles pooh-poohs the road-trouble mantra of most coaches. "There is a confidence," he said, "and an enjoyment of a road venue that this team has now."

And why not? The Tigers have handled No. 3 Oregon in Jerry Jones Stadium, then went to No. 25 Mississippi State and left the Bulldogs with no bite. This is three ranked teams in four games for LSU, which plays in a conference that has five teams in the poll all higher than WVU.

Mountaineers cornerbacks coach David Lockwood understands what's headed for his alma mater. Before he returned to WVU for a second coaching stint in 2008, he spent the 2007 season in the SEC, at Kentucky.

In the Tigers' second national title season in five years - they got into the BCS championship when WVU fell to Pitt - Kentucky won at home in three overtimes over LSU. The Tigers' only two losses that '07 season were in 3OT (the other to Arkansas).

"As a whole, you look at that conference and there are a bunch of guys that are long and fast and strong, and it's more so when you see the defenses," Lockwood said. "As a whole, the Big East doesn't have guys like that, in those numbers.

"This is what big-time football is all about ... It's a chance to go out Saturday night and play one of the best teams in the country."

Is it size or speed? "Both," Lockwood said, "and depth."

LSU has hop-scotched between a 51/2- and 6-point favorite this week, and there's more than one reason the Tigers own the biggest spread for a non-conference team heading to Morgantown since top-ranked Ohio State was a 13-point favorite for a 34-17 season-opening win in 1998.

"They fit the mold," said WVU running backs coach Robert Gillespie, who coached in the SEC for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina from 2005-08. "They're big guys, and they can run, and they compete. There are a lot of good football players in that conference, and LSU probably has more than their fair share of 'em.

"They have a lot of depth. I think that's what sets them apart, and a lot of those guys are very interchangeable. The 1s and the 2s (on the depth chart) aren't that different."

West Virginia has an 18-game home non-conference winning streak. Impressive, until you consider that LSU has won 35 regular-season non-league games in a row, no matter the stadium.

It's a big game of contrasts. As Holgorsen replied this week when asked about similarities between the teams, "None whatsoever."

He said the Tigers will "put a tight end and fullback in the game, and they're going to come downhill and get after you. If you put too many people in there, then they're going to one-on-one you on the outsides with their talented receivers."

The Tigers aren't vanilla, and their coach is liable to have something under that hat. But mostly what WVU faces Saturday night is this:

Les just has miles and miles of talent.

Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at or 304-348-7949.


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