By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
After dangling at the edge of a cliff for the final three weeks of the season, the West Virginia football team needs a vacation, and there’s no better way to do that than to spend New Year’s in Miami.
That’s right, the Mountaineers are getting their wish and going to a game with “a peel,” so to speak, heading to play in their first Orange Bowl against Clemson, surprise champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference who upset No. 5 Virginia Tech on Saturday night.
The game will be played at 8 p.m. Jan. 4, a Wednesday. The Mountaineers compiled a 9-3 record while Clemson brings a 10-3 record into the game.
It is just the second time West Virginia has played Clemson, despite some ties between the two schools that included former WVU player and Morgantown native Tommy Bowden having coached the Tigers. The two teams met in the 1989 Gator Bowl with Clemson scoring 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat WVU, 27-7.
That was a Mountaineer team led by Hall of Fame quarterback Major Harris, who was held to 17 rushing yards and 119 passing yards on 11 completions in 29 attempts.
This year’s game figures to offer a whole lot more offense than that.
“I’d be surprised if it was 6-3,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, quite sarcastically.
The game matches two of the nation’s top young quarterbacks in WVU’s Geno Smith and Clemson’s sophomore Tajh Boyd.
Interestingly, it well might have been Boyd running the show at WVU, for he gave a verbal commitment in 2008 but withdrew it, reportedly after seeing the offense that Bill Stewart and Jeff Mullen were running, as he was looking for something more wide open.
The statistics of the two quarterbacks were very similar through 12 games, before Boyd helped lead Clemson to the upset of Virginia Tech. Boyd had completed 254 of 424 passes for 3,338 yards and 28 touchdowns while Smith has completed 314 of 483 passes for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Both teams struggled down the stretch. Early in the year Clemson was one of the surprise teams in the country as it won eight straight but went into a tailspin where it lost three of its final four games, beating only Wake Forest. Each of the three losses was one-sided, losing to Georgia Tech, 31-17, to N.C. State, 37-13, and to South Carolina, 34-13.
There was even talk that Swinney might lose his job and some of the rumors centered around former WVU Coach Rich Rodriguez, who was Bowden’s assistant there before coming to Morgantown, as his replacement.
“It was real simple what happened,” Swinney said. “I don’t think we handled success very well. The biggest thing with us was we had six total turnovers in the first eight games and were one of the least penalized teams in the nation. The last four games we had 12 turnovers and were getting a lot of penalties. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened.”
West Virginia suffered a big setback in losing to Syracuse in mid-season and a narrow loss to Louisville put them in trouble as the final three games approached.
“Since then we challenged the guys to get a little more excited about playing the game,” Coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Three games in a row it came down to the last minute, maybe even the last seconds, but we told them you gotta keep playing, gotta keep playing and find a way to win in the end.”
And that is just what the Mountaineers did, eeking out victories over Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida, then needing to sweat out Cincinnati’s game with Connecticut before becoming the BCS representative of the Big East.
For Clemson, the Orange Bowl marks a return to the game where 30 years ago the school won its first national championship under Danny Ford.
The teams have a month before the game will be played, making preparation difficult as they have only 15 practices. Coaches will have to get them through exams, Christmas break, keep them in shape and working toward the game.
And even though the Mountaineers have 12 players from South Florida, six of them starters and four from Miramar High, Holgorsen said “we will not treat it like a vacation. We want them to enjoy it but they have got to get the work done and be competitive.”
NOTES: As expected, Tony Gibson, Calvin Magee and Tony Dews have left Coach Todd Graham’s coaching staff in Pittsburgh and are heading to Arizona to rejoin coach Rich Rodriguez. They were with Rodriguez at WVU and Michigan ... Tickets for the Orange Bowl are now on sale to the general public online at wvugame.com. Available tickets in the WVU allotment are $99 each and can be purchased online at wvugame.com or by calling the Mountaineer Ticket Office at 800-WVU-GAME. Phone sales will begin at 9 a.m. today. Fans purchasing tickets through the Mountaineer Ticket Office will be given an opportunity to request an upgrade of their order. Fans can requests upgrades to tickets in the WVU allotment that are priced between $120 and $165.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.