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Almost heaven, West Virginia

Is Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium one of the most underrated venues in college football? It’s hard to argue otherwise.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

College football can be as often cruel as it is beautiful. That might hold true for some schools more than it does others. Think Kansas, Rutgers and – unfortunately in 2018 – TCU. But through the good and bad there’s a type of fanfare and pageantry that is unwavering, even amid the lowest of lows.

Saturday wasn’t a day any Horned Frog fan will want to remember anytime soon. TCU lost 47-10 to CFP No. 9 West Virginia in a game that saw Heisman hopeful Will Grier and the Mountaineers erupt for a 33-0 run. And if you were counting, yes: the 37-point margin of defeat is indeed the most lopsided loss the Frogs have ever endured in the Gary Patterson era. Never had TCU suffered a blowout of such epic proportions since a 70-35 loss to Texas Tech in 2004 which, perhaps ironically, saw offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie – then the Red Raiders’ quarterback – torch the Frogs’ defense for the single-game points ever surrendered by a TCU defense under Patterson’s watch.

It was bad. Negative seven rushing yards. Seventeen points or less for the fifth time in seven games. A clinched, and fairly rare, non-winning regular season. On paper, there just wasn’t much to cheer about for the Frogs, save Jalen Reagor’s 150 yard receiving performance that saw him extend his touchdown catch streak to five straight games.

And here I was with a bird’s eye view of it the entire mess from atop press row, spared from the 20-degree windchill conditions that plagued Milan Puskar Stadium before making my way down to the sidelines to brave the frigid temperatures for the final minutes of play. There wasn’t much drama at that point as TCU’s fate had already been sealed for some time.

The Horned Frogs are now 4-6 with a 2-5 mark in Big 12 Conference play. Obviously, go ahead and forget the notion of playing for any championship – something you probably should have done a while ago – because this is just a fight to avoid spending bowl season on the living room couch.

But before you put all of your stock in how the Frogs fare against Baylor and Oklahoma State the next two Saturdays, may I remind you of an important truth: It’s all just a game.

Maybe it was the sight of 60,000 fans of all different backgrounds singing along to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” – slightly ironic considering the late singer is a graduate of Arlington Heights High School, though admittedly did not care much for Fort Worth during his childhood. Maybe it was the sight of West Virginia players having the time of their lives – now 8-1 -- after struggling to find their fit in the Big 12 for the past six years.

Or maybe it was the sight of Patterson and TCU players waiting through the playing of West Virginia’s anthem for an a capella rendition of the alma mater, as the band did not make the trip from Fort Worth.

And maybe it was just the gameday scene of Morgantown, West Virginia as a whole – from blue ridge mountains to tailgaters feasting away on pepperoni rolls and more, unfazed by snow flurries hours before kickoff.

As the case, I’d imagine with many folks who don’t call Appalachia home, Saturday was my first time taking those country roads home to WVU. There are some great college towns in the Big 12 (full disclosure: I’ve yet to make it to Ames and Manhattan), and I can tell you without any hesitation that Morgantown is unlike any of the rest. Is it tricky to get there? You betcha, but if you love college football, it’s well worth the journey – even if it requires some dedication.

The drive from Pittsburgh – the closest major city to campus – down I-79 to Morgantown? Go at the right time of year, and the coloring is spectacular. Sure it may be barren, but the 80 minute drive is a calming experience if you love nature and blasting the radio for an extended period down the highway. And it only adds to the build up of once you finally arrive.

When it comes to food, where do I even begin? Maybe we should call it a foodie’s paradise given all the fantastic options. I was lucky enough to get invited to a former co-worker’s tailgate to briefly chat and pick-up some of those iconic pepperoni rolls before heading over to the stadium (pro tip: jalapeno is the way to go), and I can confidently say that every other tailgate I ever attend going forward without them is now ruined. And yes, Primanti Bros. is equally just as incredible as advertised (I went to the one outside of Pittsburgh but there’s also one in Morgantown, FWIW) and yes, that pastrami sandwich also probably ruined just about every other sandwich I will ever eat before going back there again, God willing. Time was the only thing that prevented me from stopping at Black Bear Burrito, Mario’s Fishbowl and all the other recommendations I was given, but that’s the way it goes. PSA, holler if you ever need a franchise in DFW.

Speaking of though, let’s get back on the note of the tailgates. No knock against the gameday scene in Fort Worth, but let me tell you that there is nothing quite like the endless sea of flags tents and RVs lined up in the parking lot adjacent to Milan Puskar Stadium – at least from what I’ve witnessed in the some 15 college football venues I’ve paid a visit to. Most showed up at the crack of dawn when temperatures were still in the 20s on Saturday, and yes, a good majority will be happy to invite you in as a stranger. It’s that good of a show, and credit should be given where credit is due.

The game – well, we already touched on that – but I hope you’re getting the big picture here, and it’s that there’s just so much more than meets the eye on any ESPN for FOX broadcast of the sport all of us hold near and dear. In Morgantown, it’s just about a way of life – an opportunity for the entire town to come together on Saturdays and weather it out through the good and bad – which is about as good as its been in 11 years right now for the crowd I had a chance to immerse myself within on Saturday. And while I want to stay objective, man, it’s hard not to cheer for them going forward.

You probably heard Gary Patterson’s postgame remarks by now – his admiration of head football coach Dana Holgorsen, head basketball coach Bob Huggins, and country artist/self proclaimed WVU fan Brad Paisley, whom Patterson shares a common interest of music and guitars with. And now having seen it all first hand, it’s easy to see why.

As I write this I’m now back in my homeland of California for a few days for family matters. So maybe I can go ahead and say that country roads literally took me home – even if two flights were involved after the nighttime drive through the land that inspired one of the best sing-along songs in college football.

Throw out the stats. Throw out the winning and losing. Sometimes it’s just worth taking a second to stop and fully appreciate the spectacle, the theatre that college football is in its simplest form.

Almost heaven indeed, West Virginia.