UNLV receiver Ricky White certainly wasn’t overwhelmed by the experience of playing at Michigan Stadium during his freshman campaign at Michigan State.
White went into “The Big House” and hauled in eight passes for 196 yards and a touchdown to help the Spartans pull a shocking upset in what is generally considered one of the most intimidating environments in college football.
It wasn’t on that day. The typical raucous crowd, a 110,000-plus person mass of humanity, was replaced by less than a thousand people and a bunch of cardboard cutouts during the 2020 Covid-impacted season.
White, the Rebels’ leading receiver a year ago who had just two catches for five yards in a comfortable opening-game win that saw the passing game struggle, is looking forward to the opportunity to get a taste of a true gameday at Michigan Stadium.
“For me, there is a little more excitement just because of how many fans will be at the game,” White said of returning as a receiver for the Rebels, who will play at No. 2 Michigan on Saturday. “I’m very excited. It’s a great environment. … But the preparation has to stay the same. We just have to go and compete.”
That’s a message that has been pounded into his head by UNLV coach Barry Odom, who has played and coached in some of the most storied and intimidating environments in the country.
He points out The Swamp at Florida and night games at Texas A&M and LSU from his time coaching in the SEC. As a player,he remembers a game at Kansas State, at the time a top-five program under Bill Snyder and quarterback Michael Bishop, as some of the most memorable stops.
He wants his players to enjoy an experience they will treasure for the rest of their lives while not allowing themselves to get caught up with the brand name on the front of the opposing jerseys once the game kicks off.
Odom has preached to his team the importance of nameless, faceless opponents. The same standard that applies this week against Michigan was preached last week while preparing for an inferior Bryant squad.
“We have a lot of respect for our opponents, whether it’s Bryant or Michigan,” Odom said. “But if you prepare the right way, when you get in the moment when the ball is kicked off, you get into a flow state of being so absorbed with the opportunity that things feel like they’re in slow motion.”
Still, the Rebels face quite a daunting task as 37.5-point underdogs against the Wolverines, a team loaded with talent and national championship aspirations.
There’s no point enumerating all of their strengths, even without suspended coach Jim Harbaugh. It starts with star quarterback J.J. McCarthy and exceptional running back Blake Corum, and they are dominant on the line of scrimmage on both sides. They have talented playmakers all over the field.
“If they have a weakness, I haven’t found it yet,” Odom said. “They’re a great team.”
They also have a tremendous venue, which Odom has yet to experience despite all of his travels in college football. He admits that he’ll still take a moment to savor his first steps onto the field Saturday, just as he did for his first game at Allegiant Stadium as head coach of UNLV last week.
He wants his players to do the same – and then put it out of their minds and play football.
“We know it will be loud. There will be 110,000-plus, which is awesome. … I want them to understand what that looks like, the reasons why it’s a historic venue and then, man, go embrace the heck out of the chance to go play there.
“We’re on national TV in the middle of the day. It doesn’t get any better than that. For our team, for our brand, for our university, we need to take the approach we are representing a lot of things bigger than us.”
“Then we want to take the opportunity we have in front of us and make the most of it.”
In order to do that, the Rebels will have to avoid getting too wide-eyed and falling behind right away. Odom remembers visiting Georgia when he was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2021 and feeling like the game was over nearly as soon as it started.
“They were highly ranked, but we were a really good team and before I knew it, the score was 21-0 and they just completely overwhelmed us,” he said. “The start is so important in a game like this, so we have to do a good job coaching-wise to just stay in the game early and then take it play-by-play.”
White knows it can be done. Michigan State was a 21-point underdog going into his last visit to Ann Arbor and the Spartans came away with a 27-24, largely due to his heroics.
“We just have to compete and play at the same level they do and play every down our hardest,” White said. “It’s college football. Anybody can win any game or lose any game.”
Who: UNLV at No. 2 Michigan
When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Michigan Stadium
TV: CBS (8)
Radio: KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
Line: Michigan -37.5, Total 57.5