By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Enough time has passed since West Virginia University’s record-shattering smackdown of Clemson and the pompous Atlantic Coast Conference that it represented in the Orange Bowl to allow us to take a less impassioned look at it and its place in history.
At the moment, with 70 points still twinkling on the scoreboard in the early morning hours as the Mountaineers gave coach Dana Holgorsen a Gatorade shower, there was too much emotion involved to allow anyone to take a rational thought.
Right then, if you were wearing blue and gold, you were caught up in the moment, be it at a bar in Morgantown, at home on Christmas break or tailgating in the Sun Life Stadium parking lot. Considering that you had never experienced anything quite like that 10-touchdown outburst, you were too busy gloating to offer any critical analysis.
Indeed, it was one of the greatest moments in the history of football at West Virginia, coming at a critical time when the athletic director’s decision to fire Bill Stewart and replace him with Holgorsen was in a position to be questioned.
A loss in the Orange Bowl would have meant a four-loss season, one that showed no improvement over what Stewart had been able to produce. It would have put in question West Virginia’s place among the college elite, even go so far as to question the wisdom of leaving the comfort of the Big East for a far greater challenge in the Big 12.
Such a loss seemed ever so likely as Clemson carried the football within a millimeter of the end zone, about to take the lead in the game and maybe take control of the game, only to have Darwin Cook tiptoe out of the scrum with the football concealed within his grasp and then take off 99 yards for a touchdown that changed history and left the Orange Bowl mascot with a headache.
You could almost see the Clemson team deflate like a Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade float that had just been hit by a shot out of a BB gun, the air hissing out as it got smaller and smaller and smaller, finally winding up on the ground, flat as a pancake as the parade marched right over it.
At the same time it was obvious that the West Virginia balloon was being filled with hydrogen, growing larger and larger, floating higher and higher, knowing that only the sky was the limit.
So moved by what he had seen from a team putting 70 points on the board, a West Virginia columnist dubbed Holgorsen an offensive genius, which may be stretching the truth a smidgeon and shows why it is best to put a bit of time between an event and its analysis, but he has a point, for the man does know what he is doing.
Certainly LSU could have used him in the national championship game. The Tigers might have been able to kick a field goal.
Returning to our purpose here, however, we must try to slot this bowl victory into its place among the greatest victories in West Virginia football history, and while it does elbow its way in near the top, the circumstances aren’t right to put it at the No. 1 spot.
Circumstances, you see, are as important as the outcome itself, for the timing must be such that a victory can stave off a downturn in the program or ignite it to heights it never dreamed it would see.
Therefore, two games fit the bill, and you get almost no argument about the biggest win in Mountaineer history.
That came a month after Rich Rodriguez walked out on the program, a month after it had fallen to Pitt as a 28-point favorite in a game where it needed only to win to go into the national championship game.
One second the Mountaineers were thought to be the best team in college football; the next the program seemed to be in shambles, having lost to its bitter rival and having had its coach jump to Michigan and take most of his staff with him.
Somehow the aforementioned Mr. Stewart rescued the program, kept the team together as an interim coach and came up with a way to not only beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, but to do it convincingly, saving the reputation of the school, its recruiting and its football program.
That he could squander such goodwill within three years is difficult to imagine, but a change in athletic directors certainly was the catalyst for that, although Stewart’s conduct after the change could not be condoned any longer.
The second biggest victory, quite surprisingly, was also against Oklahoma, being the introduction of Don Nehlen to the world as a Hall of Fame football coach. It came in the 1982 season opener and proved that a stunning Peach Bowl upset of Florida was not a fluke and that WVU would be a team to reckon with, one that would spin off an undefeated regular season within six years.
The tendency at the moment is to put the Orange Bowl at the No. 3 spot among all WVU victories, for so much returns next year that you suspect this game will launch them into a period of prosperity to match the Nehlen run that had them unbeaten in 1988 and 1993.
The bigger question, perhaps, is whether that victory will launch the Mountaineers off on a new run of great success or be simply a launching pad for Holgorsen’s career, for it won’t mean much if he doesn’t remain true to the school that gave him his chance, just as Nehlen did.
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