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The 'Take Me Home' Field Advantage

Gray has a full spread of veggies, chips and cookies set up for passersby, but "this is nothing. We'll fire up the grill in a little bit. You should see that." He arrived at 7 a.m. to start setting up and says he'll be parked here "until 11 a.m. Sunday. It's the same mood if we don't win. We'll still be here the next game and the next."

Gray admits that Morgantown's tailgating scene is certainly a whopper, but adds with a frown that "Ohio State's is probably just as good." It should be noted, however, that Columbus, Ohio, has a population of more than 700,000. Also, the Mountaineers, although a Division I school in the Big East Conference, are not exactly a powerhouse. Last year, Ohio State won the national championship.

Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, W.Va., rocks on game day. (James Morris)

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Mountaineer Field, a no-frills, open-air stadium that shakes and shimmies when the home team makes a first down, does not serve beer, so at halftime -- with WVU up by 6 -- fans are given appropriately named "pass out" cards, so that they can leave the stadium, tailgate for 20 minutes and be allowed back in.

Today, however, the fans would have been better off staying outside: The 'Eers play a lousy second half and eventually lose to the Badgers, 24-17.

Maybe that's just as well. Last year, when West Virginia beat hated rival Virginia Tech -- that is, beat them on the road -- Morgantown made national newscasts not for the win but for a series of fires that were started around town. Since then, there's been a stronger police presence on football Saturdays, giving the citywide party a slightly sinister vibe. (Fair warning: The Virginia Tech game is here this year, on Oct. 22.)

Walking down bustling High Street -- downtown's bar-packed main thoroughfare -- with three former classmates, Lisa Allen, 32, says not to believe the bad stuff. Well, at least not all of it. In fact, she says things were a lot worse when she went to school here in the early '90s: "Oh yeah, it was like 'Animal House.' "

Allen's friend Noel Goldberg, 32, says the group chose Mountaineer football over a beach or spa trip. "It's a football weekend in Morgantown with your girlfriends. It doesn't get any better than that."

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Morgantown, W.Va., is 31/2 hours from Washington. Take Route 270 north to Route 70 west. Merge onto Route 68 west and continue for about 100 miles. Take Exit 7 right onto 857 north for half a mile and turn left at first light onto Route 119. At the second light, turn right onto 705 west. At the third light turn left onto Van Voorhis Road.

GETTING TICKETS: The WVU Mountaineers football team has five tailgates/home games remaining: Rutgers (Oct. 11), Virginia Tech (Oct. 22), Central Florida (Nov. 1), Pittsburgh (Nov. 15) and Temple (Nov. 29). Good seats can be had for $30 apiece (800-988-4263).

WHERE TO GO (PRE-GAME): Mountaineer Field's parking lots get wild, wilder, wildest three hours before kickoff. RV and truck permits are difficult to come by, but call the stadium event staff to check for cancellations (304-291-4650). Your best bet is to park in a cheap lot on Van Voorhis Road (usually $7 per car), tailgate a little there, and then head to the "Pit" and the Blue Lot, where hundreds of vendors sell cheap grilled meats to the masses.

WHERE TO GO (POST-GAME): With its high density of bars, restaurants and very happy people, the High Street area in downtown Morgantown is reminiscent of Bourbon Street -- especially if the 'Eers win the game. Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar (268 High St.) is one of the hottest hangouts and features some of the best (and cheapest) food in town. Gibbie's Pub & Eatery (368 High St.) has good pool and good music -- and can get hot and crowded. For great last-call pizza, brave the long line at Casa D'Amici (285 High St.).

WHERE TO STAY: The most convenient hotel for tailgating is the Hampton Inn (Gameday rates start at $159, 1053 Van Voorhis Rd., 304-599-1200, www.hamptoninn.com). Enemy fans dominate the handsome lobby and lounge, but the Mountaineers get wild in the parking lot.

INFO: Morgantown Visitors Information, 800-458-7373, www.tourmorgantown.com

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