Last of the old rivals
MORGANTOWN - With Pitt now off the schedule, the Marshall series in the rear-view mirror and the Big East - and, for that matter, Eastern football as a whole - only a memory, there's pretty much no one left on West Virginia's football slate that can be considered a traditional rival.
Well, there's pretty much no one, but it's not a total washout just yet.
Maryland is still around, the teams having squared off in 30 of the last 32 years. They will meet again today when the No. 8 Mountaineers (2-0) play the Terps (2-1) at Mountaineer Field in a noon game that will be televised by FX.
In a season like this one, as West Virginia dives head first into the uncharted waters of the Big 12, so many rivalries have been lost, perhaps forever. Games with names (the Backyard Brawl vs. Pitt and, yes, even the Coal Bowl with Marshall) are gone. Ditto games with awards (the Schwartzwalder Trophy at Syracuse or the Black Diamond Trophy that has gathered dust at Virginia Tech since 2005). It's possible even to lament the passing of a series with Rutgers, which was never very sexy but at least had the consistency of both duration (32 straight years) and outcome (17 straight WVU wins).
Shoot, even Dana Holgorsen, who pretty much embodies how things have changed so quickly at West Virginia, likes to embrace the rivalry with Maryland because it is the only one left.
"It's important,'' Holgorsen said this week. "This series is one of the few remaining rival games because it's a neighboring state and we have a history with them.''
There are a lot of reasons that maintaining at least a handful of natural rivalries is good for a program. Holgorsen pointed to a couple, namely familiarity to the fans and an ability to draw upon certain segments of the players themselves for motivation.
"Every game is important, and I think from a fan base that this one is pretty important,'' Holgorsen said. "And I think we have 10 or 12 guys from Maryland and it's going to be important to them.
"That's one of the things last year that was big. Like when we went and played at Cincinnati, the Ohio guys got everybody cranked up. When we went and played Maryland, the Maryland people got people cranked up. When we went and played South Florida, the south Florida kids got people cranked up. And when we went and played Rutgers, the Jersey kids got people cranked up.''
Indeed, there are more than a few players - key players - who see this game as being every bit as big as bygone rivalries with Pitt or Virginia Tech or anyone else. There are 10 players from Maryland listed on West Virginia's roster, and half of them are starters on the depth chart - Tavon Austin, Jeff Braun, Terence Garvin, Josh Francis and Ryan Clarke.
Only Florida, with seven, has more players in starting roles.
"I'm really not a rah-rah guy. I'd rather just lay back and play my part,'' Austin said. "But at the end of the day, [playing Maryland] is a family thing for me. My cousin went to Maryland and I always talk to him about it. But he's on my side right now because I'm at West Virginia.''
Still, even if Austin isn't a rah-rah guy, this game is important, if not for him then for that family back home in Baltimore. Maryland, of course, recruited Austin, so there's a certain familiarity there that goes beyond just the home-state team. It's a matter of pride that Austin just isn't allowed to lose to Maryland.
"The one person who always told me that was my grandmother,'' Austin said. "She said, 'Tavon, whatever you do, do not lose to Maryland.' They came in our house [while recruiting him] and they talked to my grandmother and they told her they were going to beat West Virginia. She said you can't lose to Maryland.''
Well, so far so good for Austin. The teams have played twice in Austin's previous three seasons and the Mountaineers have won both. In fact, West Virginia hasn't lost to the Terps since doing so twice during the 2003 season, once in College Park and again in the Gator Bowl. That was the end of a four-game win streak for the Terps, which has now become a six-game win streak for WVU.
The teams are contracted to meet every year through 2017.
"This isn't the last time we're going to play. We're going to continue to play,'' Holgorsen said. "It's going to mean a lot to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. From a regional standpoint, it's very important.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.