By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
To be the best you have to beat the best, and if West Virginia University is ever going to take that final leap to the top of the college football world, this Saturday’s 8 p.m. showdown with LSU may be the final hurdle.
Time is becoming a major issue in the Mountaineers’ search for the college football holy grail because the way realignment is shaping up, WVU well could find itself in a conference and carrying a schedule without enough weight to ever again be a national contender.
The Bayou Tigers are unbeaten through three games and ranked No. 2 in America, although a case could be made that they are the best team in the nation … and are getting better.
This week they added junior wide receiver and kick returner Russell Shepard to their arsenal after he sat out a three-game NCAA suspension. This gives the Tigers a jolt of energy they could never get from a bottle of 5-Hour Energy Drink.
“I have enjoyed Russell’s return to the team,” LSU head coach Les Miles said. “He’s got a lot of energy, and he’s certainly looking forward to playing a lot of football.”
There are times when it seems Shepard is everywhere.
“We’ll be using him in a number of ways … special teams, receiving,” Miles said. “Any time you have a veteran you know where he will be. It gives you another weapon.”
The first effect is to give LSU’s offense, which is not sexy like the WVU approach, additional options.
“It allows us to put multiple-receiver sets on the field,” Miles explained. “We like four- and three-receiver sets. Any time you can get a guy with the big-play potential like Shepard has, defenses have to be concerned with him, and it will give our other guys a little more space.”
Shepard’s numbers last year don’t knock your eyes out. He caught 33 passes and averaged just 7.7 yards a catch. Against WVU he caught one pass for -6 yards. He did rush 32 times and averaged 7.1 yards.
Miles says Shepard did not waste his suspension, when he was allowed to practice while not playing in games.
“He improved,” Miles said. “He understands route concepts better. He’s not as mechanical running the routes. He’s getting the opportunity to catch it and make you miss after. He’s pretty special when he can make you miss and get into some space.”
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen doesn’t gush when talking about the LSU offense, but he does respect it.
“It’s not the trickiest thing in the world to figure out what they’re doing,” he said. “Will they catch us on some things? Probably.
“It’s a group that’s made up of very, very talented individuals from not just the state of Louisiana but from Texas and all over.
“Coach Miles has established the program on all sides. In seven or so years, they’ve won a couple of national championships. They get their guys to play with a whole lot of effort, and it looks to me like they’re pretty excited to play. That’s a challenge.”
The Tigers do not put nearly as much on their quarterback, Jarrett Lee, as WVU does on its QB, Geno Smith.
When asked if Lee had taken ownership of the team yet and if that was important, Miles gave an interesting answer.
“I think he has always enjoyed the membership (rather than the ownership of the team). Ownership is basically that contributing factor that allows you to say this is how we will do things. He has always had that. It is important the quarterback taking the snaps understands not only his contribution, but in a great way how he will lead this team,” Miles said.
Defensively, LSU has spectacular athletes and relies heavily on its defensive line.
LSU already has faced an offense similar to West Virginia’s in Oregon and did a solid job of shutting it down.
“Nobody goes faster than Oregon. We don’t go faster than Oregon. LSU handled Oregon’s tempo just fine. One thing that is concerning watching their defense is that they don’t play just 11 people – they have tremendous depth on both sides of the ball. They can put their 2s in there and it looks just as good as the 1s,” Holgorsen said.
Holgorsen has a lot of respect for the program Miles has put together at LSU.
“You don’t win three national championships in a decade and be average … and that just doesn’t turn south very quickly,” Holgorsen said. “They’ve done a good job with sustaining their program. They’ve been in two big games this year and they’ve handled each opponent fairly easily.”
In other words …
“To say it’s not going to be a challenge would be crazy,” Holgorsen concluded.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.