“Yeah, that’s exactly how we draw it up, right?” — Dana Holgorsen, 1/5/2012
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Make no mistake, the No. 23 West Virginia Mountaineers caught some breaks in the 2012 Orange Bowl en route to a record-setting 70-33 demolition upset of No. 14 Clemson [RECAP | BOX]. First there was Andrew Buie, rolling over the top of Clemson’s Rashard Hall, realizing no crucial body parts had hit the ground and popping up to sprint an additional 17 yards to propel WVU’s first score of the night. Then there was Andre Ellington’s fumble on a would-be Clemson touchdown, the ball never hitting the ground amid a squirming swamp of bodies and WVU’s Darwin Cook snatching it for a 99-yard score the other way that left no jaw in Sun Life Stadium undropped. The 14-point swing gave the Mountaineers their first multi-score lead, which Clemson would threaten only once, with a field goal to cut the deficit to eight points, before coming completely unhinged in Miami. (Tomorrow’s chintzy headlines today: “DARWIN COOK SPROUTS LEGS, STAGGERS OUT OF ENDZONE QUAGMIRE.”)
But luck doesn’t come in 70-point batches, and this WVU team would not have needed it if it did. It is impossible to overstate the great bounding strides Dana Holgorsen’s brand of Airraid has made in Morgantown since Week 3, when the Mountaineers hosted eventual SEC champ and undefeated national title contender LSU and were dealt a stinging loss. Against the ACC’s Tigers on Wednesday, the ‘Eers played fast, clean, efficient ball, their only turnover an interception thrown by backup quarterback Paul Millard, who was given a series under center with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter with the game already laughably beyond reach for Clemson. West Virginia’s Geno Smith completed 31-of-42 pass attempts and accounted for seven touchdowns, six of them thrown, with just 426 all-purpose yards recorded.
A South Florida native, Smith called coming home to the Orange Bowl “a storybook game” days before the thing had even been played. But as anything save a cartoon, the events of Wednesday evening defied credulity. Smith completed five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown to high school teammate Stedman Bailey, but Tavon Austin roped in the majority of receptions: 117 yards on 11 catches, four of them touchdowns. In his postgame conference, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney quipped grimly: “I’m telling you, we still haven’t tackled No. 1. He’s as good a skilled player with the ball in his hands as I’ve seen all year. I mean, he’s special.” Lofty praise indeed, coming from the coach of breakout star Sammy Watkins.
Compounding Clemson’s shame, West Virginia as a team gained 188 yards on the ground without the services of top running back Dustin Garrison, who was injured in bowl practice last week. Sans Garrison, the ground game was divided among Shawne Alston (76 yards, two touchdowns), Buie (45 yards), Austin (46 yards) and Smith (26 yards). Swinney remarked that “It’s probably as bad a defensive performance as I’ve seen in a long, long time,” and we’re left wondering why on earth he felt the need to stick “probably” in there.
Let us sing, on the other hand, the praises of Jeff Casteel’s defense, which held the Tigers well below their 34-point average until garbage time, intercepted Tajh Boyd twice and sacked him thrice, collected two fumbles and utterly boxed in Watkins, who caught one touchdown and recorded just 66 receiving yards. Even an Airraid-evangelizing, defense-eschewing mind like Holgorsen’s appreciates that performance: “You don’t score 70 points by being good on offense.”
Well, not entirely, anyway. And that key play of Cook’s, on which the entire evening turned? “We actually didn’t know what happened,” confessed linebacker Najee Goode. “I saw Cook taking off full speed, so I just hauled right behind him and followed him.” It’s heartening to see Casteel, lauded as he’s been in Morgantown, still emphasizing key fundamentals: When in doubt, always follow the guy with the ball in his hands streaking the wrong way down the field.
So where do the Mountaineers go from here? Further up and further out. Smith, elected game MVP in a hotly contested race with Austin, said afterward, “I’m not satisfied. We’re not satisfied. You know, we can always improve.” Believe it or not, he’s not being modest. This is a team, recall, in the first year of a new offense, under a new head coach, with depth problems at some key positions, coming off an offseason infamously fraught with discord at the staff level. The Mountaineers truly have not yet brushed their ceiling. This team has only just begun to get Holgorsen’s scheme down to muscle memories, and to grow its roster.
Moving forward, the Mountaineers will be old hands at Holgorsen’s particular Airraid, and will surely bolster their already considerable ranks of Florida-bred talent with some blue-chip high school phenoms who witnessed tonight’s spectacle. And they’ll enter the Big 12 (sooner rather than later if they get their way) not as a program that couldn’t wriggle its way into the ACC or SEC, but as a legit threat to contend for the conference crown, and contend early.
Said Smith tonight: “I felt like I still left some yards out there, still left some plays out there, some things I want to have back.” This time next year, maybe we’ll find out if some January scoreboard feels like lighting up to a hundred.