By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The countdown is at one and West Virginia University, despite never reaching expectations, plays a rare Thursday night in South Florida with a chance to share the Big East championship and take down the BCS bid to the Orange Bowl.
This week everything fell the Mountaineers’ way. Somehow they regrouped in the second half on Friday night at home against Pitt in what may be the last of the Backyard Brawls and rallied to win, 21-20, on the booming foot of punter Corey Smith and the savagery of a 10-sack defense.
Then on Saturday, the University of Cincinnati, playing without quarterback Zach Collaros, turned running back Isaiah Pead loose at Syracuse and defeated the Orange, 30-13. That set up this scenario for the final weekend of the regular season:
Louisville is in at 5-2, its Big East season over. WVU and Cincinnati both need to win to finish 5-2.
If both win, then WVU will get the bid because each team has lost to the other and WVU would have the highest BCS ranking. If WVU wins and Cincinnati loses, Louisville is the champion because it holds the tie-breaker over the Mountaineers in a two-way tie by virtue of its 38-35 victory on Nov. 6.
And, if WVU loses and Cincinnati wins, Cincinnati has the tie-breaker over Louisville.
But WVU coach Dana Holgorsen swears that none of that has factored into anything in the planning or playing of the Backyard Brawl or will factor into the events this week.
“For second week in a row, after dropping the game to Louisville, the theme has been to play with as much energy as you can muster and make sure you get excited when good things happen and make sure when things don’t go exactly the way you want them to go that you don’t need to give up,” Holgorsen explained in the happy twilight of the victory over Pittsburgh.
“Give our coaches and players a tremendous amount of credit for buying into that. We had a tremendous amount of excitement on the sidelines and there were a lot of things that happened on offense that we could have quit on but didn’t,” he continued.
Indeed, the first half was a disaster, WVU being outplayed and outgunned throughout.
One wondered, perhaps, if the team noting that Louisville had won earlier in the day had soured its outlook and perhaps robbed the team of its energy in the beginning.
“I can’t speak for the players, but I’m sure they all were in their hotel rooms and watched the game. I did,” Holgorsen said. “But we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t talk about it all week.
“There’s nothing we could do to help South Florida beat Louisville or to help Cincinnati win. We can’t control any of that. We’ve been talking in here for two weeks about worrying about just what you can control, and what we could control was doing our best to beat Pitt.”
Holgorsen said he understood that the situation had to be on his players’ minds at some point.
“I’m sure that was on all their minds because everyone reads y’all’s work and watches TV and understands the situation, but the only thing we can do is focus on what we can do,” he said. “We can’t control what Cincinnati does, so we’re not going to talk about it. We’re just going to worry about winning at South Florida.”
A lot is at stake, that is for certain, and Holgorsen and his players know it.
They came into the season as the Big East favorites and anything less than the BCS bid will be considered not achieving the ultimate goal, but what is passed is past, and Holgorsen wants the Mountaineers to understand there is little or nothing they can do about it.
“We’ve got a chance to get to nine wins next week and go to a bowl game. All bowl games are fun, so we’ll let all that sort itself out and try to get to 10 wins, which would be a pretty good season,” he said.
Especially if that 10th one can come in the Orange Bowl.
NOTES: WVU award winners for the Pitt game were offensive player, Stedman Bailey; defensive player, Julian Miller; special teams player, Corey Smith; offensive scout team player, Connor Arlia; defensive scout team player, Taige Redman. … Pitt has to win next week against Syracuse to finish at .500 in the first year under former Mountaineer assistant Todd Graham.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.