The Times West Virginian

January 5, 2012

COLUMN: BCS games bring out the best in WVU

By Cliff Nichols
Times West Virginian

— Adversity seems to follow West Virginia University into Bowl Championship Series games.

The Mountaineers, in two previous BCS outings prior to Wednesday’s Orange Bowl battle with Clemson, responded quite nicely.

Nothing in the past, though, could compare to what WVU did in a record-smashing 70-33 decision over the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Tigers.

The Mountaineers ended the regular season with narrow Big East wins at Cincinnati, at home over Pitt and at South Florida just to reach the game after suffering upset losses to Syracuse and Louisville.

Then WVU lost safety Terence Garvin to a knee injury.

“When you lose Terence Garvin, who was our leading tackler last year and has played a lot of football, you can’t just replace him with one guy,” first-year WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said.

Adding to the pre-game uncertainty, freshman running back Dustin Garrison went down last week with a non-contact knee injury.

“I’ll tell you, if we would have given him the ball more throughout the course of the year, he’d probably be better than what he is right now to the point that he probably was going to be a 1,000-yard rusher,” Holgorsen said.

Throw in the matter of WVU’s upcoming move from the Big East to the Big 12, which could be as early as next season.

No matter.

The Mountaineers took total control during the second quarter. Clemson actually led 17-14 before WVU exploded into a 63-20 lead in the third period.

Quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Tavon Austin, also used to carry the ball, led the assault on the record books.

Austin caught 11 passes for 117 yards and four touchdowns. Smith completed 31 of 42 passes for 401 yards and six TDs.

It’s the most TD passes in WVU bowl history. Brad Lewis threw for five TDs in the 2000 Music City Bowl win over Mississippi in the last game of Hall of Fame WVU coach Don Nehlen’s career.

“The only way you score this many points is if you play well on all three sides of the ball,” Holgorsen said. “There’s no way one side of the ball can do this. Right now I’m just proud of the way all three sides of the ball played.”

It all just adds — big time — to how WVU brushed aside previous adversity during BCS games and won as underdogs.

Heading into the 2006 Sugar Bowl in Atlanta — held there because of the destruction in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina the previous August — questions surrounded the Big East following the defection of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Coach Rich Rodriguez was continually peppered with questions about the conference in the days leading up to the game.

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 favored 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.

Fast forward two years to the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.

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. It was an emotional time in Morgantown and throughout Mountaineer Nation.

Bill Stewart was in charge as WVU faced heavily favored Oklahoma out in Arizona.

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, before Wednesday’s rout of Clemson.

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 Owen 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.

Now, the 2011-12 Mountaineers have added in a major way to the lore WVU greats of the past contributed to the school’s football history.

Email Cliff Nichols at cnichols@timeswv.com.