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January 5, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Safety sneak by Cook huge play for WVU

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Geno Smith was wearing a record-breaking smile, the kind that comes with six touchdown passes in a game like the Orange Bowl, the kind that only 401 passing yards can bring, the kind that 70 points stretch from ear to ear.

He was the MVP of the game, perhaps the MVP of the greatest offensive game in all bowl history. Looking up at him from below were quarterbacks who have not fame but fortune, including one named Tom Brady, who when with Michigan threw for 369 yards, which had been the Orange Bowl record.

Smith, while wearing that smile and having taken it up to the stands to see his friends and relatives who were in attendance, was still maintaining the modesty that makes him so unique among today’s touchdown dancing, chest-thumping athletes.

See, Smith knows that hidden among all the offensive accomplishments of the evening, his work and the four touchdowns that Tavon Austin caught and the two touchdowns Shawne Alston scored and the impossible, incredible run by Andrew Buie after a catch, there was a moment when the game turned in West Virginia University’s favor ... a defensive moment.

That is right, in the midst of a 70-33 victory, the most important single play, the one that carried the most impact, was made by a defensive safety by the name of Darwin Cook.

To set the scene, Clemson possessed the football at the WVU 1 early in the second quarter, the Mountaineers’ lead of 21-17 about to become a 24-21 deficit.

The football had been handed to Andre Ellington, who earlier in the game had found 68 yards no problem to negotiate for a touchdown. But now he had that yard to make and it proved to be a mile and a half, for he could not get the ball, the ball being pried loose.

Enter young Mr. Cook, a likeable, talkative redshirt sophomore who at 5-foot-11 is hardly an imposing figure in a room full of football behemoths. He claims he saw the ball come loose, the result of freshman linebacker Doug Rigg tearing it out of Ellington’s grip.

He gathered it up, fully aware it had not hit the ground and was clearly a fumble, one that had come loose short of the goal line.

“I saw the ball come out, and I tried to grab it up so no one knew I had it,” he said. “I just tried to sneak out of there.”

You’ve heard of a quarterback sneak? This was a safety sneak.

Cook made like a thief in the night.

“I walked away a couple of steps, hoping nobody saw me,” he said. “I felt like I was back in high school.”

Indeed, here he was, covering up the ball, taking a couple of walking steps, then suddenly taking flight, running full speed toward the other goal line as some Clemson players stood there baffled, only one in hot pursuit, unable to catch him.

By the time he crossed the goal line, everyone in the stadium was aware of what had happened, and, as he crossed out of the back of the end zone, he ran over Obie, that cute little Orange Bowl mascot, knocking it to the ground, unaware that inside the costume was a little lady.

All he knew was that it was wearing orange, Clemson’s color, and that was enough to turn it into something of a target.

Until that moment, this was a ball game, the two teams trading scores. It looked as if each might score 100 points.

But once Cook crossed the goal line, the game was West Virginia.

“Momentum shifted, and we could not catch it,” said Tajh Boyd, the Clemson quarterback who turned down a chance to be on the winning side when he decommitted from WVU as a recruit. “We did not help ourselves out. They returned a fumble 99 yards for a touchdown, and then we had an interception after that.”

It was like a snowball rolling downhill in Miami, although to be honest there are neither snowballs nor hills here.

It only felt that way.

“That play probably changed the game,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who had little else to say about the rumors that he will be heading for Arizona to join Rich Rodriguez.

It is difficult to imagine just how strong the momentum was that WVU got off that play, but the touchdowns began flowing as freely as the orange juice for which this state is famous.

What is most interesting about them, perhaps, is that while Smith was considered the game’s star and shattered record after record, it is unimaginable that four of his touchdown passes were simple underhanded flips to Austin and Milhouse, flips that traveled forward no more than a yard, the receivers taking them the rest of the way as Clemson wondered where the ball had disappeared to.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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