Survivor: West Virginia
Mountaineers ignore distractions to end on Fiesta high
Posted: Thursday January 3, 2008 2:29AM; Updated: Thursday January 3, 2008 11:16AM
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There would be no miracle finishes this time around. No hook and ladders. No Statue of Liberties. No marriage proposals.
This year's Fiesta Bowl didn't need any overtimes but there was an upset, if you are still naïve enough to call it that.
West Virginia reminded everyone why it was once thought of as the best team in America, running Oklahoma off the field in a 48-28 blowout that was about as surprising and improbable as last season's memorable finale.
How could we have forgotten how good West Virginia was? The better question may be how could anyone have expected an outburst like this after everything it's been through.
Seriously, has any team suffered through a worse one-month stretch than West Virginia? Just four weeks ago the Mountaineers were one win away from playing in the BCS National Championship Game. One win -- at home no less -- against a 4-7 Pittsburgh squad from playing against Ohio State in New Orleans, a game in which the Mountaineers would likely have been the favorites.
Since their 13-9 loss against Pittsburgh in the "Backyard Brawl," the Mountaineers lost their head coach, Rich Rodriguez, to Michigan, subsequently sued Rodriguez over his $4 million buyout and made sure the focus of the team was anywhere but on the football field heading into the Fiesta Bowl. Never before has a single regular-season loss unraveled a program so quickly and dramatically.
Or so we all thought.
While interim coach Bill Stewart continually assured everyone West Virginia was focused on the game and intent on proving its season wasn't a failure, it was hard to take the words of the affable coach seriously. West Virginia was the Titanic, we all thought, and Stewart was simply the stubborn captain too proud to realize he was on a sinking ship.
West Virginia's players privately enjoyed their newfound underdog role. They knew they could run circles around any team in America and played it perfectly, pumping up the Sooners at every turn before blowing them up when they stepped on the field.
"I saw that 84 percent of the country picked against us," said quarterback Pat White. "That's nothing new to West Virginia. Since I've been here we've been underdogs. It's like going back to childhood for me."
The Mountaineers defense took out all the frustration that had been festering inside of it since that chilly night in Morgantown a month ago. They shot into Oklahoma's backfield play after play, rattling Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford early and knocking him completely out of rhythm.
"We knew to beat them we had to put a lot of pressure on them," said safety Eric Wicks, who blitzed Bradford early in the game, nearly causing a turnover on one hit. "He's a freshman quarterback but he's been playing like a veteran all year. That's mainly because a lot guys didn't put pressure on him. We were sending six, seven guys and all-out blitzing to get to him."
For weeks this game was labeled as Oklahoma's shot at redemption after the Sooners were embarrassed by Boise State last season and were forced to relive the moment whenever it was shown on television. The Sooners would also prove they belonged in the BCS title game after thoroughly dismantling Missouri in the Big 12 Championship.
Somewhere along the way, however, everyone forgot about West Virginia, that lightning-quick bunch that was thought of as the best team in the country before being bitten by the upset bug in its finale. In this, the season of the upset, the Mountaineers' biggest failure was not getting bit sooner. After all, a regular season-ending loss at home to an unranked team shouldn't doom a two-loss season. Right, LSU?
"We knew [Oklahoma was] a big team but we wanted to show them that we were more physical than they thought they were," said Wicks. "Coming into this game they said we were soft and we were small but we wanted to show them and everyone else that we play tough football. We knew they weren't going to look at us like a top contender. They looked at us like we're a little rinky-dink team. They didn't look at us like we could play football. With our stats and the guys that we have, I mean we were winning some games for a reason. They didn't respect us at all, but we earned their respect today."
While the morning line would tell you that this game was an upset, West Virginia's résumé this season and this thorough domination of Oklahoma would indicate the result shouldn't be thrown in with the same pile as Appalachian State, Stanford and -- close your ears Mountaineer fans -- Pittsburgh.
West Virginia simply orchestrated a symphony of speed and quickness and outran its opponent to a win, as the Mountaineers had done 10 times this season. Our problem was we wanted to focus on that Pittsburgh loss and the loss it suffered to its coaching staff two weeks later. How was a team that was so shell-shocked in its season finale and by the departure of its head coach supposed to focus on football? Maybe its answer was the biggest upset of all.
"I don't know if you guys heard about a little thing that happened at Michigan, but that might have pumped us up a little bit," said kicker Pat McAfee, who nailed two field goals. "This was all for good old Coach Stew. We keep hearing all these names like Terry Bowden, Butch Jones, all these other names but Coach Stew, the man who's in charge. His name was never brought up and that was a big mistake by the people running stuff at West Virginia. He held the team together strong and I think this was a hell of an interview for him."
Truth be told, there was nothing particularly shocking about West Virginia's performance. The Mountaineers controlled the line of scrimmage with a penetrating defense that stifled Oklahoma's failed attempts at screen passes, laterals and quick handoffs. Every dink and dunk Oklahoma threw at them was met with the thunderous thud of a Mountaineer defender.