Football, Sports, WVU Sports

COLUMN: WVU fans didn’t take the Mayo Bowl for granted and it showed

West Virginia was playing North Carolina, quite literally, on the Tar Heels’ own turf in Wednesday’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl. And yet, despite playing in their own home state, the Tar Heels must have felt like they were in Milan Puskar Stadium.

Mountaineer fans easily out-numbered their power blue-colored counterparts on Wednesday. Pockets of UNC supporters were few and far between in the stands, while gold and blue were present throughout the audience of 42,925.

“That’s the special part about West Virginia,” West Virginia quarterback Garrett Greene said. “Not too many teams could make you have an away game in your home state. That’s why I love this state so much, they care about football.”

In theory, there’s no real reason why the representation should have been so lopsided. Chapel Hill, N.C. is about a three-hour drive from Charlotte, where the game was played, while Morgantown is closer to six hours. The teams also had the same record coming in at 8-4. 

The difference, I believe, is how the fan bases viewed this game.

UNC came into 2023 with high expectations, wanting to compete for an ACC Championship. A 2-4 second half of the season and star quarterback Drake Maye opting out really diminished North Carolina’s excitement for the bowl game.

WVU, meanwhile, was riding high. The Mountaineers had their best season under fifth-year coach Neal Brown and the team was trying for nine wins for the first time since 2016.

“West Virginia showed up, I thought we had a great crowd and they were into it,” WVU coach Neal Brown said. “I’m glad that a national TV audience got to see how Mountaineer nation supports our team. They love football, it’s important to them and I’m glad they were able to experience a bowl win too.”

The other aspect is that while UNC is closer to Charlotte, WVU fans were never going to take a drivable game for granted. 

In the ACC, North Carolina plays several games easily within driving distance for their fans every season. In the Big 12, it’s the opposite for WVU. Until the Mountaineers play at Cincinnati in 2024, they will have never had a drivable conference game in over a decade.

So when it was announced the Mountaineers would be playing a measly six hours away, it was a given that the fans would show up.

Brown has said that he believes bowl games are decided by which team is the most excited to play. The Mountaineers were clearly excited to play, but even before a single one of them took the field, the fan base was already providing some energy.

“The crowd was a huge factor, they felt that in warmups. ” Brown said. “You really felt that coming into the city (Tuesday), when our crowd really started showing up.”

In a comparison of fans, there’s no question the WVU contingent was more excited than those supporting UNC. That turned what should have been a neutral field, or even a UNC advantage, into essentially a home game for the Mountaineers. 

“Give West Virginia credit for their crowd,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “I thought theirs was great, I was impressed.”

I don’t think there’s any question that playing in front of a supportive crowd helps a team, especially when it’s as one-sided as the Mayo Bowl was.

“(The players) were excited about being here,” Neal Brown said, “and there’s no question the crowd played into that.”

West Virginians simply love the Mountaineers. If WVU is playing even relatively close by, the fans are going to show up. They’ve learned not to take these chances for granted.