Many of West Virginia University’s 14 victories in 31 postseason football games fell under the heading of “upset.”
This undoubtedly is a major reason that most of those unexpected bowl triumphs rank among the school’s all-time greatest wins. The victims were favored and, in some cases, ranked among the nation’s elite.
This season, though, WVU, in its first season in the Big 12, is a slight favorite in its Pinstripe Bowl matchup with the Big East’s Syracuse at 3:15 p.m. Saturday in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Both teams are 7-5.
Last January, WVU was a slight underdog to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, but behind Geno Smith and Tavon Austin and some huge defensive plays broke the game open by halftime and romped to a 70-33 win for the Mountaineers’ third Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl victory in seven seasons.
In front of a crowd of 67,563 at Sun Life Stadium, in Dana Holgorsen’s first bowl game as WVU’s head coach, the Mountaineers led 49-20 at halftime and 63-20 two possessions into the third period.
“I can't imagine it being any brighter than it is right now,” Holgorsen said. “The future is pretty bright for West Virginia.”
WVU had 592 total yards, and Smith, named the game’s MVP, went 31-of-42 passing for 401 yards.
Darwin Cook returned a fumble 99 for a touchdown in a momentum-changing play. Bruce Irvin, in his final WVU game before becoming a first-round draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks, had a forced fumble and Pat Miller an interception to set up scores.
Smith broke Orange Bowl and BCS records and tied the all-time bowl record with six TD passes. He also broke Tom Brady’s Orange Bowl record for passing yardage.
Austin had four touchdown receptions, tying Orange Bowl and BCS bowl game records. He caught 11 passes for 117 yards and ran the ball four times for 46.
Arguably WVU’s most significant bowl win was the 38-35 decision over favored Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, transplanted to Atlanta because of the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, following the 2005 season.
Questions surrounded the Big East following the defection of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Coach Rich Rodriguez’s WVU teams had lost their first three bowl games by 26, 34 and 12 points.
Things changed dramatically that night in the Georgia Dome in front of a roaring crowd of 70,112. Steve Slaton ran for 204 yards and three touchdowns and Patrick White threw for 120 yards and a touchdown and ran for 77 yards as the freshman duo stole the show against the Southeastern Conference opponent. WVU led 28-0 early but didn’t secure the victory until the closing moments, when punter Phil Brady ran for a first down on fourth-and-six.
A dramatic rally marked the Mountaineers’ Gator Bowl win the next season, a 38-35 decision over Georgia Tech when the Mountaineers came back from an 18-point deficit.
Slaton was limited by a deep thigh bruise, but White took over and ran for 145 yards and passed for 131 to earn MVP honors. Fullback Owen Schmitt added 109 yards rushing.
Georgia Tech, led by wide receiver Calvin Johnson, led 35-17 before White threw touchdown passes of 57 yards to Tito Gonazales and 14 yards to Brandon Myles before running 15 yards for what proved to be the game-winning score. All that happened in the third quarter.
Rodriguez left for Michigan following a 13-9 loss to Pitt in the 2007 regular-season finale which cost WVU the opportunity to play Ohio State for the national championship.
Instead, Bill Stewart was in charge as the Mountaineers faced heavily favored Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
WVU outgunned the No. 3 Sooners, 48-28, scoring two touchdowns in each of the final three quarters. That and the 1981 Peach Bowl win over Florida were the most decisive in WVU bowl history, both 20-point victories, until the 2012 rout of Clemson.
Again it was White leading the way and earning MVP status, passing for 176 yards and rushing for 150. Freshman Noel Devine, after Slaton was injured early, ran for 108 yards, and Schmitt’s 57-yard touchdown run is the longest in WVU bowl history. The Mountaineers finished with 525 total yards, 349 on the ground.
Linebacker Reed Williams had nine tackles, two for losses, and forced a fumble.
WVU certainly was the underdog going into the 2000 Music City Bowl at Nashville, Tenn. WVU exploded for a 35-9 halftime lead against Mississippi, then fought off a second-half uprising for s 49-38 victory.
Brad Lewis, the game’s MVP, completed 15 of 21 passes for 308 yards and five touchdowns. Antonio Brown had five receptions for 156 yards, while Avon Cobourne rushed for 125 yards.
The WVU defense, led by safety Shawn Hackett's 14 tackles, limited Ole Miss star Deuce McAllister to just 22 yards rushing.
That tremendous triumph snapped an agonizing eight-game bowl losing streak and sent Don Nehlen into retirement with one of his most cherished conquests.
There couldn’t have been a better way to cap Nehlen’s outstanding 21-year career as WVU's head coach. In all, he took Mountaineer teams to an even dozen bowls.
You had to go back all the way to New Year’s Eve of 1984 for the previous bowl victory. WVU crushed favored Texas Christian 31-14 in the Houston Astrodome.
It remains among the most decisive of Mountaineer bowl victories.
Nehlen’s first bowl as the WVU coach was the 26-6 drubbing of Florida in the 1981 Peach Bowl. The Gators were favored by 11 points. One touting service, figuring that Florida would win by an even bigger margin, tagged it “Lock of the Year.”
But WVU was awesome that wet, 34-degree afternoon in Atlanta. It dominated the Gators from start to finish and became the first three-time winner of the Peach Bowl.
Nehlen, then in only his second year here, hailed that stunning success as “the finest” he had ever been associated with. He called it “our proudest hour” up to that juncture.
Tailback Mickey Walczak caught a record eight passes and scored two touchdowns. Place-kicker Paul Woodside booted a record four field goals. Quarterback Oliver Luck, now WVU’s athletic director, completed 14 of 23 passes for 107 yards and one score.
While WVU logged 301 yards in total offense, its defense limited Florida to a mere 105 yards — including a shocking minus-30 rushing.
Charley Pell, the Gators’ head coach, was still so angry the following spring that he burned game films in a midfield ceremony. And Florida omitted information on that game from its 1982 media guide.
The 1969 team made a similarly shocking impact on the Peach Bowl. “Sneak attack” might be fitting.
The Mountaineers caught favored South Carolina unaware and unprepared by secretly installing a wishbone offense. It continually confused the Gamecocks, and WVU wound up winning 14-3 in the rain and mud.
Eddie Williams, a surprise starter at fullback in place of Jim Braxton, rushed for 208 yards on 35 carries — a school and bowl record. Tailback Bob Gresham added 98 yards to become WVU’s all-time single-season rushing leader at the time.
In all, the Mountaineers amassed 346 yards on the ground. Quarterback Mike Sherwood tried just two passes the entire game
Williams was honored as top offensive player and linebacker Carl Crennel as top defensive player. South Carolina was limited to 64 yards rushing and 126 passing.
That victory gave WVU a 10-1 record, then the second best in school history. But the next morning Jim Carlen resigned to become head coach at Texas Tech
It was the Peach Bowl which produced still another memorable victory in 1975. Dan Kendra's 50-yard touchdown toss in the fourth quarter to Scott MacDonald, who was on a basketball scholarship, turned a 10-6 deficit into a 13-10 upset of favored North Carolina State on a muddy field.
Making that victory all the more satisfying was the fact it avenged a 49-13 loss to the Wolfpack in the 1972 Peach Bowl. And N.C. State’s coach both years was Lou Holt
But that win, like the one in ’69, cost WVU its head coach. Bobby Bowden left to become a legend at Florida State.
One of the most dazzling of these bowl performances came in the aforementioned 1984 Bluebonnet Bowl against TCU. The underdog Mountaineers piled up more than 500 yards in total offense en route to a smashing 31-14 romp.
The Hornet Frogs were supposed to have the blazing speed, but swift WVU made them look like slow-pokes
Kevin White performed like an All-America quarterback that night. He passed for 302 yards and three touchdowns and was voted the game’s MVP.
White was so impressive that a Houston writer commented, “There isn’t a quarterback in the Southwest Conference that's as good as this guy.”
Willie Drewrey was the top pass-catcher with six for 152 yards and also excelled as a kick-returner. John Gay, Gary Mullen and Ron Wolfley caught TD passes.
TCU managed just 92 yards rushing. All-America halfback Kenneth Davis netted just 19 yards before leaving the game after a bone-crushing tackle by Matt Smith.
WVU also was the underdog in two Sun Bowl victories — 7-6 over Texas Tech on Jan. 1, 1938, and 21-13 over Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) on Jan. 1, 1949.
Reserve halfback Davey Issac scored the lone TD in the ’38 contest, and Kelly Moan kicked the winning extra point. Halfback Harry (Flash) Clarke gained 132 of the team’s 198 yards rushing.
That team, coached by Dr. Marshall “Little Sleepy” Glenn, finished the season with an 8-1-1 record.
Quarterback Jimmy Walthall directed coach Dud DeGroot’s winning attack in the Sun Bowl 11 years later
But halfback Jim Devonshire was the star, scoring two touchdowns and running for several big gains.
WVU also needed a rally to nip Kentucky 20-16 in the 1983 Hall of Fame Bowl on a cold night in Birmingham, Ala. But the Wildcats — not the Mountaineers — were the underdogs in that matchup.
Quarterback Jeff Hostetler, 0-for-10 passing the first half, completed 10 of 13 for 88 yards and two TDs in the second half.
Woodside kicked field goals of 39 and 23 yards. Tailback Tommy Gray rushed 32 times for 149 yards.
Historians failed record whether WVU was considered the favorite or underdog in its first postseason victory. That came against Gonzaga 21-13 on Christmas Day, 1922, at San Diego in what was called the East-West Bowl.
Dr. Clarence Spears took only 19 players on the cross-country train trip.
The Mountaineers jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first thee quarters, then had to stave off Gonzaga's furious comeback. Nick Nardacci ran 12 yards for one score and passed to Jack Simons for another.
Russ Meredith of Fairmont returned an interception 30 yards for the third TD.
To cap the 2008 season, West Virginia eked out a 31-30 decision over North Carolina in the 2008 Meineke Car Care Bowl battle in Charlotte, N.C.
It was the fourth straight post-season victory for the Mountaineers. In the process, White became the first quarterback in NCAA history to win four bowl games.
White completed 26 of 32 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 55 yards, to total 387 yards of offense.
Following the 2009 season, Bowden wrapped up his Florida State career with his 389th career victory, 33-21 over the Mountaineers, before a record Gator Bowl crowd of 84,129.
Devine rushed for 168 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and caught two passes for 28 yards. Devine only had five carries in the second half, and quarterback Jarrett Brown was forced to sit out the final two quarters with an ankle injury.
Many of West Virginia University’s 14 victories in 31 postseason football games fell under the heading of “upset.”
- Mickey Furfari
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