By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Tradition tells us that a college football bowl game represents the end of a season, but in the case of West Virginia University, which somehow willed its way into the 2012 Orange Bowl that will take place at 8:30 p.m. today against Clemson, it may really represent the rebirth of the program.
A trip to the Orange Bowl is an untraditional end to an untraditional season, to be sure, for WVU has never before played in the Orange Bowl, just as it has never gone through the turmoil and adversity it faced this year to get there.
Be it the coaching change that became a soap opera, athletic director Oliver Luck deciding to ease Bill Stewart out as head coach in favor of the dynamic, young offensive mind that is Dana Holgorsen; be it the ups and downs of a topsy-turvy season that only could be saved by a heroic three-game win streak at the end; or be it injuries in the final days leading up to tonight’s kickoff, it has been a year to remember.
Add that to the politics of college football that played out in the background, WVU’s escape from a dying Big East Conference to the Big 12, an escape that currently is tied up in the legal system, and you have a season that defies explanation.
A BCS bowl championship, of course, would be a fitting climax to it, for this certainly has been a Mountaineer team that has shown courage and character as it went 9-3 to gain a share of the Big East title.
It would also serve as a wonderful launching pad into the future.
Quarterback Geno Smith, upon whom Holgorsen’s airborne offense rests, put it best as he prepared for this unexpected trip to a BCS bowl game.
“We’ve got winners, man. We’ve got tremendous character. We never looked at it as a rebuilding year. We are dealing with different coaching staff, different style of football. It’s all been for the better. The program is headed in the right direction. Being on the first team coached by Dana Holgorsen is special to me,” he said.
Winners, indeed. Upset by Syracuse and then by Louisville, this was a team that could have packed it in, that was looking at a trip to some second-class bowl game that was nothing more than a chance to get in some early practice for next year.
But instead, after the Louisville upset, everything about the team changed. Holgorsen felt the team finally accepted him as the leader, or maybe it just was bouncing off the bottom, but it had a different look when it returned for the final three games.
“Something definitely changed,” Smith said. “We had to look ourselves in the mirror and see exactly what it was we weren’t doing. We weren’t playing together as a team and without enough energy.”
Julian Miller, the senior defensive lineman who is one of the defense’s leaders, saw the revival as a sign of character on the team.
“It says a lot about our team, about how we can persist,” he said. “The last three games showed everyone the kind of team we are. We keep fighting and get through whatever we need to do.”
The Mountaineers beat Cincinnati, rival Pittsburgh and South Florida to reach the Orange Bowl at a time when any misstep took everything they had worked for away from them.
Now this trip has been a reward. They have been in a luxury hotel on Miami Beach, marveling at the atmosphere and rubbing elbows on New Year’s Eve with celebrities like Rihanna. They have had time unto themselves to celebrate, yet they also have turned to work, knowing that Clemson is no easy opponent.
In Tajh Boyd they have a quarterback who originally committed to WVU and would have been battling Geno Smith for the starting job had the two been here.
“They are similar to us; I think they are incredibly similar to us,” Holgorsen has said. “They have the quarterback (Boyd) who is a talented kid. He makes plays and keeps the play alive. He can throw it, and he can scramble. They run him more than we run Geno.”
Boyd has captured the attention of the Mountaineers’ defensive guru Jeff Casteel.
“You have to calculate for him. Guys who don’t have a QB who runs you don’t have to account for,” Casteel said. “But they have designed plays for him, and he does things when plays break down, and that’s a big problem. He’s a big kid and can obviously throw the football. He can do things with his feet, and that’s a problem.”
Boyd also has people who can make plays on the receiving end of his passes.
“They have a great tight end, and Sammy Watkins is one of the faster football players in college football,” Holgorsen continued. “They do a good job with misdirection runs. It is the same background offensively that we faced with Pitt. Their offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, was under Todd Graham at Tulsa and has learned a lot from Gus Malzahn, as did Todd Graham. It is very similar, which is challenging because they run the ball a good bit and they use misdirection, but they will throw it down field quite a bit, too.”
The Mountaineers would like to mix in some runs, too, but they are without their starting running back, Dustin Garrison, who went down with a freak knee injury in a non-contact drill last week. The injury will require surgery and six months of rehabilitation, turning the running game over to Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie.
Do not, however, forget that slot receiver Tavon Austin was as good a running back as there was in America in high school, and Holgorsen could possibly make use of that out of him.
The Clemson defense is good, but it will have its hands full with Smith, Austin and wide receiver Stedman Bailey, players who give this Mountaineer team a flare. The Tigers may be up to it, however.
“Defensively, they’ve got a great looking team,” Holgorsen said. “Probably their D-line is as talented as we have seen. Andre Branch is a guy that when he turns it on can get up field much like a guy that we have on defense. They have a lot of secondary guys that are athletic and do a good job of covering the space and closing on the ball quickly.”
Both teams are dynamic in the return game, with Watkins and Austin going head-to-head.
Clemson was considered among the nation’s top teams early in the season until it went into a mid-season tailspin, recovering much the same way WVU did to not only reach the ACC championship but beat Virginia Tech twice to earn the title.
“They were on that run where they were fourth or fifth in the country — no matter what they were, they were playing some good football and it is just tough to play at that level for 13 games,” Holgorsen said. “It is tough for anyone to play at that level for 13 games. We have talked about it all year — teams have letdowns where they don’t show up and play as good as they have and they get beat. That’s just the way college football is.
“There is only one team across the country right now that was able to line up and win every game. They (Clemson) turned it on in the end and won the ACC. That is a pretty good year.”
The game carries great significance to Clemson as well as West Virginia, coming 30 years after the Tigers’ only Orange Bowl appearance, a game in which they won their only national championship.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.