By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It may not be the game West Virginia wanted to play in coming into the 2010 football season. It may not even be the game they should be playing in, but Orlando, Fla., in December is a very nice consolation prize when you let the Big East championship slip through your fingers.
The No. 22-ranked Mountaineers (9-3) accepted an invitation to play in the Champs Sports Bowl, taking on high-scoring North Carolina State (8-4) of the Atlantic Coast Conference, at 6 p.m. on Dec. 28.
“This is a big bowl,” said WVU Coach Bill Stewart. “I think there’s a game on later that night but at 6 p.m., we’ll be America’s game. We will be the only one on at that time.”
It certainly is a big bowl, complete with a payout of $2.13 million, a long way from the $17 million at the Fiesta Bowl that would have come had the Mountaineers earned the BCS bid. The money, however, goes to the Big East and is divided among all members.
Available tickets in the WVU allotment are $65 each and can be purchased online at WVUGAME.com, or by calling the Mountaineer Ticket Office at 1-800-WVU GAME.
The Mountaineers came into the season believing they were ready to win the Big East and jump into national contention. They knew they had potentially one of the finest defenses they had ever had but never did they expect it to be second in the nation, allowing no team to score more than 21 points on them.
They will have a hard time keeping that streak intact against a Wolfpack team that features star quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw for 3,228 yards and 26 touchdowns. Stewart actually was involved in trying to recruit Wilson when he was a position coach here, but was beaten out by a recruiter from N.C. State named Steve Dunlap, who is now the Mountaineers’ safety coach.
While the defense exceeded all expectations, the offense took a long time to get on track with Heisman candidate Noel Devine suffering a foot and ankle injury that kept him to fewer than 1,000 rushing yards.
In truth, the problem was youth as three sophomores proved to be key players — quarterback Geno Smith, wide receiver Tavon Auston and fullback Ryan Clarke.
The Mountaineers ran into turnovers problems in all three losses — each by less than a touchdown — as they fell at LSU, at home against Syracuse and then on the road at Connecticut in the game that cost them a BCS bid.
It took a four-game winning streak to save the season, as the young players developed.
“Over the last month we have shown the people of West Virginia and the nation that West Virginia is still a team very much to be reckoned with,” Stewart said. “We showed great resolve. That’s the Mountaineer way.”
Getting this bid was not a gimme, for the Champs people had the right to invite Notre Dame instead of a Big East team.
“We have a long term view of our relationship with Notre Dame. We can take them once in four years and we felt a ranked WVU team with a 9-3 record deserved to be here vs. a 7-5 Notre Dame team,” said Champs Sports Bowl CEO Steve Hogan.
In addition to Connecticut and West Virginia, here is the rest of the Big East bowl lineup:
Pitt accepted an invitation to play in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., against the University of Kentucky. The game will be played at noon on Jan. 8, making it one of the latest bowls and also, with a $600,000 payout, it is one of the least lucrative bowls.
South Florida, despite its heartbreaking loss to Connecticut, will make its sixth straight bowl appearance in Charlotte when it takes on Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl at noon on Dec. 31.
Syracuse returns to postseason play for the first time since 2004 when it plays in the initial New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, facing Kansas State at 3:20 p.m. on Dec. 30.
And finally Louisville’s return to respectability under first-year coach Charlie Strong landed a bid in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., facing Southern Mississippi at 8 p.m. on Dec. 21 at Tropicana Field.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.