The Times West Virginian

Sports

December 22, 2012

High hopes that were deceiving

MORGANTOWN — A year ago at this time there was a buzz in the air that could be heard all the way from High Street to Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, which was West Virginia University’s destination for the Orange Bowl.

There was unbridled excitement in these parts over the Mountaineers’ journey back to a BCS bowl in Dana Holgorsen’s first season as head coach, a battle with a good Clemson team awaiting them. Stores were running out of suntan lotion in these parts, and Christmas gifts were in the form of bikinis and sunglasses.

And what a treat that trip turned out to be, a 70-33 victory in Miami, WVU’s third consecutive BCS win, as Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and company shattered nearly all the passing records and scoring records in the game.

It was jubilation, even though we fooled ourselves into thinking it was something more than it was. Clemson, you see, was a three-loss team that had not won its conference championship, and outside of the West Virginia and South Carolina borders no one seemed to give a damn about the game.

This is what’s happened in recent years, as this paragraph out of a recent issue of Forbes magazine will tell you:

Yes, they still actually play the Orange Bowl in Miami. It’s just that no one watches any more. In the BCS era, the Orange Bowl audience has pulled a Nielsen rating of 8.0 (8 percent of the audience) or lower for six straight years. Last year’s matchup between West Virginia and Clemson drew a record-low 5.3. There’s little surprise: recent years have showcased Iowa-Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech-Cincinnati and Louisville-Wake Forest. Pee-yooo. It’s just as bad this year: Florida State will welcome Northern Illinois, a school that’s giving away tickets to students that are actually willing to go.

In some ways this is disheartening to read, for everyone overestimated what that game in Miami meant. It got West Virginia hearts beating in a national championship rhythm.

It was so blinding that everyone seemed to overlook the defensive shortcomings of this year’s team, the fact that a new defense and new defensive staff would be introduced in a conference that eats up experienced defensive coordinators and staffs.

A five-game winning streak at the season’s start even blinded the poll voters as the Mountaineers climbed to the No. 5 spot in the nation, only to come tumbling down from that spot in an avalanche of losses that left them at 5-5 going into the final two games in which they were playing for their bowl life.

That they won them and became one of nine bowl-eligible teams in the Big 12, which may say more about the glut of bowls than it does about the strength of the conference, and they wound up with an invitation to the Pinstripe Bowl, whose claim to fame is that it is played in Yankee Stadium.

The opponent is Syracuse, a rather ironic opponent, being another team that is leaping out of the Big East and one of the teams that upset West Virginia a year ago.

There is hardly any buzz about this game, and the sales of suntan lotion and sunglasses are running considerably behind last year.

  Holgorsen, of course, isn’t about to admit that this is simply one of the surplus of bowls that are responsible, in part, for the fall of such major bowls as the Orange Bowl, so many of them having sprung up over the years that you can hardly tell one from the next.

As far as he’s concerned, this is a big opportunity for his team and for West Virginia fans.

“We’re excited about the opportunity. I have been up with the Yankees organization several times. Those guys are tremendous, and the organization is tremendous,” he said.

“They take good care of us. It’ll be a great bowl game with some good events, like spending time in New York City. I polled the team, and I think about 75 percent of our guys have never been to the city, so it’ll be a new and neat experience for them.

“The actual stadium is a pretty good venue for a football game, believe it or not. It fits in there pretty well. It’s on top of you, so it gives you a pretty good atmosphere. I think we’ll travel well and Syracuse will travel well, which will be fun and entertaining.”

It won’t mean a thing as far as the history books go, and if people were ignoring West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. It doesn’t make sense they’ll be watching this one.

The shame of it all is that it’s the final college game for Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and they deserve a far bigger stage than this from which to say goodbye to their youth and innocence before entering the dog-eat-dog world of the NFL.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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