In Morgantown, W.Va., the most popular summer flicks featured
not Jim Carrey or Bruce Willis but Andy Katzenmoyer and David
Boston. Since the beginning of June, Mountaineers players have
been avidly viewing film of their first 1998 opponent, Ohio
State. "I'd be lying if I said I don't think about that game
every day," says senior guard Bryan Pukenas.
In that Sept. 5 matchup against the top-ranked Buckeyes, West
Virginia coach Don Nehlen will showcase his most talented team
since the '93 bunch that finished 11-1 and ranked No. 7. Though
Ohio State will be a sizable favorite, Nehlen believes the
Mountaineers are catching the Buckeyes at the right time. "We're
better off playing them first, because maybe we'll have most of
our players then," says Nehlen, who had nine defensive starters
miss games last season because of injury. "We'll also find out
in a hurry if we're any good at all."
For star junior tailback Amos Zereoue, the Ohio State game is an
opportunity to get his Heisman Trophy campaign up and running in
front of a prime-time national television audience. Last year
"Famous Amos" rushed for 1,589 yards, third best in the nation
and a Mountaineers record. This year he needs just 25 yards to
break the West Virginia career mark of 2,648 yards, held by
Artie Owens. "He's the complete package," Nehlen says. "When you
add up that he can run with the ball, catch it and block, too,
you've got yourself a pretty good player."
Zereoue joins eight other returning starters on offense,
including junior quarterback Marc Bulger, who graduated from the
same Pittsburgh high school, Central Catholic, as Dan Marino.
Entering his second season as a starter, the 6'3", 205-pound
Bulger looms large for the Mountaineers this fall--and not just
because he has gained 40 pounds since arriving in Morgantown
three years ago. If Bulger continues to make the strides he did
last year, when he threw for 2,112 yards, the West Virginia
offense will be one of the nation's most dangerous.
Talented, experienced receivers will take some of the heat off
Zereoue. Senior Shawn Foreman was an All-Big East selection last
season, when he had 65 catches. Senior David Saunders, who led
the conference in receiving two years ago, says he has recovered
from two damaged ligaments in his left knee that forced him to
sit out all of 1997.
On defense, rush linebacker Gary Stills and nosetackle John
Thornton (both all-conference picks in '97) form the nucleus of
a unit that is speedier than last year's group. However, the
switch of three players to new positions creates much
uncertainty. Junior Jerry Porter, who had previous tryouts as a
receiver and quarterback, has moved to free safety. Former
fullback Mark Plants and converted safety Barrett Green, both
juniors, have joined the linebacking corps, where they will be
teamed with senior Damon Cogdell, who is returning from a
fractured left hip that doctors once feared was career-ending.
Defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap hopes he won't have to do any
more reshuffling. "You can't keep moving players around to
different positions,'' he says. "They don't know what to do."
Even if the defense jells, West Virginia must overcome two other
major hurdles to win the Big East championship: Syracuse and
Miami. Since '94, the Mountaineers are 2-6 against these
conference rivals. For now, though, all eyes are on the
Buckeyes. "Starting out with Ohio State is one of the biggest
things that could ever happen to this team," Zereoue says. "If
we want to be on top, we have to play the best."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN F. GRIESHOP/SCHWARTZMAN SPORTS Ground swell Zereoue will need a strong start to stand out in a deep Heisman field. [Amos Zereoue running with football in game]
1997 record: 7-5 (4-3, tied for 3rd in Big East)
Final ranking: unranked
1997 Averages OFFENSE DEFENSE
Scoring 30.0 22.7
Rushing Yards 180.0 130.9
Passing Yards 201.2 218.8
Total Yards 381.2 349.7
Tailback Amos Zereoue has single-handedly outrushed the
opposition 13 times in his 24-game career.... Junior placekicker
Jay Taylor is one of the country's best (40 of 40 PATs, 14 of 17
FGs in '97). However, his performance could suffer now that he
has been pressed into punting duty.... Rush linebacker Gary
Stills led the Mountaineers last season with 11 sacks.
Schedule strength: 65th of 112
Sept. 5 vs. Ohio State The last time these two met, in 1987, the
Buckeyes won decisively, 24-3 in Columbus.
Nov. 7 vs. Syracuse In their past three games with the
Orangemen, the Mountaineers have been outscored by an average of
The Bottom Line
Dangerous offense makes West Virginia a contender for the Big
East crown; shaky D prevents the Mountaineers from winning it.