Miami showdown has W. Virginia up Respect, top bowl on line for unbeaten Mountaineers


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The state has been hit by a coal miners' strike and high unemployment, but nothing can rally morale like West Virginia University's football team. Students camp out overnight in the rain for tickets. Tailgate parties start at dawn. Radio talk shows are flooded with callers trying to get free tickets.

MountaineersMania hasn't been this high since 1988 when Major Harris was the quarterback, and West Virginia lost to Notre Dame, 34-21, for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl.

"Excited? That's putting it mildly," said Steve Beasley, 24, who drives a bakery truck. "How about ecstatic? How about crazed? We don't have a pro football team. We don't have any professional teams. To get involved in the pros, we've got to travel one and a half hours to big-brother Pittsburgh. This is the only game in town."

"For all the things this town has been through, and all the hillbilly jokes we hear, if we beat Miami Saturday, we're going to take this euphoria to another level."

The No. 9 Mountaineers (9-0, 5-0 Big East) will play No. 4 Miami (8-1, 6-0) today (3:30 p.m.) at Mountaineers Stadium. According to alumni director Steve Douglas, this is the biggest game at Morgantown in the program's 103 years.

Bigger than the 31-9 win over No. 14 Syracuse in 1988, and the 21-20 victory against unbeaten and No. 4 Boston College in 1984. Even bigger than the wins against Penn State in 1984 and 1988.

It's huge!!!

"I've had calls this morning from Honolulu, Las Vegas, New York. I've been in the alumni business for 11 years, and this is the hardest ticket I've ever had to try and get for somebody," said Douglas.

A win over Miami gives West Virginia a chance at a major bowl game and puts the Mountaineers in exclusive company with No. 6 Auburn and No. 3 Nebraska as the only unbeaten and untied Top 10 teams. West Virginia finishes at BC next week.

"Then we can talk about a national championship if we go undefeated," said junior wide receiver Mike Baker. "We're not getting the respect we deserve. Every week I hear Lee Corso on ESPN putting us down. But we like that, we feed off anything negative."

West Virginia coach Don Nehlen pretends to be mum about the Rodney Dangerfield chip his players carry on their shoulders. He says he doesn't pay attention to polls or preseason prognosticators.

But then again. . . .

"Every year we have to work our way up in the polls," said Nehlen, who has a 101-55-4 record in 14 years at West Virginia. "Why? It's because we live in West Virginia. I'm not frustrated because that's the way it has always been and always will be. Every year, the same teams are always up there. It was that way when I was a kid and it will be that way when I'm dead.

"Really, I don't have time to think of all that junk [polls]. Miami sees our film, they know we can play," said Nehlen. "If we keep winning, that proves we belong up there. That's the bottom line."

Nehlen had another bottom line coming into the season. Senior Jake Kelchner (6 feet 2, 215 pounds) was going to be his starting quarterback, not senior Darren Studstill (6-2, 190), who had started most of last season.

End of conversation. Goodbye quarterback controversy.

"Jake was starting to come into his own when he got hurt last year [swelling around elbow in third game against Maryland]," said Nehlen. "His problem was that he didn't get enough quality snaps. But he had a great spring, and since then he has taken off."

Kelchner, a straight drop-back type passer who transferred from Notre Dame, leads the nation in passing efficiency with a 183.3 rating. He's completed 85 of 124 attempts for 1,373 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Studstill splits some playing time with Kelchner, mostly in the first half to give defenses a change of pace. But Studstill is a runner who does most of his damage outside the pocket. He has completed 37 of 57 passes for 670 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions.

"The biggest way it's helped me is that when he comes in late in first quarter or early second quarter, I get to come off the field and watch what they're doing while he's in there," said Kelchner, who will start tomorrow despite a hamstring injury.

"It gives me a different look at things, it really helps me," he said. "I can talk to coaches and everything, get things straightened out. He's got fresh legs and a fresh arm going in. He's very productive when he's in there."

It's an offense that seems to score at will, even with a front line that returned only two starters. The Mountaineers are averaging 40.8 points, 239.7 passing and 265.9 rushing years. Sophomore tailback Robert Walker has 1,049 yards rushing and Baker has 35 receptions for 640 yards and five touchdowns to lead the team.

But what about defense? The Mountaineers are allowing 125.4 rushing and 225.6 passing yards. They barely beat Virginia Tech (14-13), Louisville (36-34) and even had trouble against Maryland (42-37). Pass rush? Forget it. West Virginia has only 23 sacks.

Miami has one of the fastest teams in football. The Hurricanes also have straightened out their offense since replacing Frank Costa at quarterback with Ryan Collins.

Maybe that's why Nehlen doesn't want to get caught up in MountaineersMania yet. "My biggest celebration would be a hot-fudge sundae -- that's if we win. I'll probably have one if we lose, too," he said.

Mountaineers guard Tom Robsock said: "You have to understand Coach Nehlen. He's been around for a long time. He knows how to motivate his players, how to handle situations and the media. He may not party in the streets, but he'll probably have one heck of a celebration at home by himself if we win."

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