Omar Stover has played in a Memorial Stadium before.
When he was a junior in high school, Stover won the Class 8A Illinois state championship, carrying the Bolingbrook Raiders to glory in front of a few thousand fans inside the mostly empty Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.
But it was nothing like what Stover and the Cowboys are approaching on Saturday. The stadium’s name will be just about the only similarity between that experience and his first collegiate football game in Lincoln, Neb.
“I honestly think it hit me yesterday,” the freshman running back said on Monday. “I was laying in my bed and I was like, ‘Man, 96,000 [people]. It’s right around the corner.’”
Stover won’t be the only one stepping into unfamiliar surroundings on Saturday. According to the depth chart, seven Cowboys are set to start in their first Division I football game in Lincoln. Ideally, they would be able to get their feet wet with a less capable opponent, cruising to an easy win in front of a docile crowd.
Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium — Wyoming coach Dave Christensen knows — provides just the opposite.
“We’ll talk about the whole experience in detail with the team. I will. I’ve been there,” Christensen said. “The atmosphere, the fan base, the excitement, the camera down the hallway watching them come into the stadium — all the things that build up to make it a big deal. We’re going to make sure our players are prepared and expect all those things.”
Still, it must be a bit unnerving to depend so heavily on a group of players that have never played in front of 30,000 fans, let alone a 90,000-capacity sea of red. For those newcomers, defensive coordinator Chris Tormey has a simple message: keep your eyes down, and your ears shut.
“You just talk to them about keeping their eyes down. There’s nobody in the stands that’s going to jump out of the stands and make a play,” Tormey said. “You’ve got to focus on who’s in front of you, focus on your responsibility, keep your eyes where they need to be and take care of your responsibility one play at a time.”
Such will be the task for junior college transfers Tyran Finley, Albert Perez, Walker Madden and Connor Rains and freshmen Tanner Gentry, Brendan Turelli, Stover and Ethan Wood. Junior quarterback Brett Smith, of course, has been there. He knows what it feels like to play Nebraska as a true freshman.
The only difference, in this case, is the venue.
Smith’s 2011 matchup against the Huskers took place in the friendly confines of War Memorial Stadium. And while he would like to tell his young teammates that they won’t notice the crowd noise and fanaticism that surrounds the field, he can’t do that with a clear conscience.
“Talking to some guys when I was a freshman, they kind of helped me out and said, ‘You know, relax. It’s really not that big of a deal. Once you start playing you don’t even realize it,’” Smith said. “I could say that, but at the same time I know it’s going to be loud as heck in that stadium.”
Of course, Wyoming’s coaches have blasted simulated crowd noise through the loudspeakers at practice, trying to make their offense feel as if they’re lining up across from the Huskers’ Blackshirts. They’ve talked to their team about poise, about executing an assignment and letting all outside distractions wash away.
But until they’re there, nothing truly compares to Lincoln. And while Stover’s own Memorial Stadium experience will surely be dwarfed by comparison, he said that despite a few lingering butterflies, he’ll be ready to play.
“Obviously it’s a dream come true. As a kid, you lay down and you dream of being in a video game and stuff like that,” Stover said. “And it’s actually here. I have this opportunity, and I’m going to perform.
“I just have to.”