Almost Heaven? Not Quite: Pure Heaven.
By Paul Myerberg // Jan 5, 2012
West Virginia’s 49 points at halftime were the most in bowl history. Not Orange Bowl history: bowl history, as in every… single… bowl… ever played. The history of bowl games, from the Rose to the Beef ‘O’ Brady. Ever, ever, ever. Likewise, West Virginia’s 70 points at the end of regulation was a bowl record – ever. The Mountaineers hadn’t dropped 49 or more points in a game against B.C.S. conference competition since Rich Rodriguez; Clemson hadn’t allowed at least 49 points since the 2002 Tangerine Bowl, when Texas Tech squeaked by with a 55-15 win. Texas Tech, home of Mike Leach, the Air Raid offense and a young, promising assistant named Dana Holgorsen.
Ready for the Big 12? The Mountaineers would like to start tomorrow, if possible, and should fit the pass-happy conference like a glove. The real Orange Bowl winner — fitting in this age of conference expansion — might be the Big 12 itself, which saw West Virginia, its newest addition, cap what the program hopes to be its final season in the Big East in the grandest of grand style.
Geno Smith entered the game with 25 touchdowns, the second-best single-season total in school history. Sixty minutes later, with a brief period of the third quarter spent on the bench, Smith had tied Marc Bulger in the West Virginia record books. Tavon Austin entered the Orange Bowl with four receiving touchdowns; he left with eight.
The Mountaineers scored five touchdowns in the second quarter, putting together the most dominant second frame in major bowl history since Nebraska pummeled Florida, 29-0, in the second quarter of the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. In terms of an offensive pummeling, you might need to roll back to Super Bowl XXII, when Doug Williams and the Redskins scored 35 points on John Elway and the Broncos.
Fireworks. Holgorsen-built, Red Bull-sponsored, Air Raid-themed fireworks. By the time the Orange Bowl reached halftime, Clemson might have actually considered the unimaginable: What does time Train get here? Meet (West) Virginia, indeed.
The Mountaineers click-clacked into the locker room to strains of John Denver. Almost heaven? This was heaven: this was why athletic director Oliver Luck so easily jettisoned Bill Stewart in favor of Holgorsen, West Virginia’s former head-coach-in-waiting, now head-coach-for-as-long-as-he-wants-it. Holgorsen has exceeded every expectation, which is quite the accomplishment.
For Clemson, this was Waterloo: a disaster of unforeseeable magnitude and unimaginable consequences. Likewise for the A.C.C., which saw its overall B.C.S. bowl record drop to 2-13. After last night, the conference is 1-9 in the Orange Bowl – the lone win coming in 2009, when Virginia Tech beat Cincinnati.
Questions: How did Clemson win 11 games? How did the Tigers beat the Hokies once, let alone twice? The Hokies weren’t world-beaters, but it’s hard to see how Clemson – sloppy, disjointed Clemson – ever had enough in the tank to post two such marquee conference victories. And how does the program recover from the most humbling loss in school history?
Very rarely does one bowl loss leave a program entering the winter facing more questions than answers. The Tigers, high on an A.C.C. title in December, enter January in a different frame of mind. Fans worried about losing Kevin Steele to the SEC – though he denied any connection to Tennessee’s open coordinator position after the game – experienced a change of heart.
“We start over,” Steele said after the game. “Six weeks ago didn’t have nothing to do with next year and this won’t either. I’ve been around long enough where I’ve lost an Orange Bowl and won the national championship the next year.” Steele’s referencing his stint at Nebraska, where the Cornhuskers followed up a loss to Miami in 1993 with back-to-back national titles.
Nevertheless: the program’s dream of turning an Orange Bowl win into a run at the 2012 national title takes a significant detour. That the Tigers suffered such a monumental, record-breaking defeat at the Orange Bowl, where the program won its lone national title exactly 30 years before, only pours more salt in the wound.
For Clemson, it’s time to regroup. For West Virginia, it’s party time. It’s great when a plan comes together: Luck ditched Stewart, promoted Holgorsen, and has an immediate B.C.S. win to show for his leap of faith. And for the Mountaineers, the best may be yet to come.
The offense is only scratching the surface of its potential. Smith, who owns two of the three most prolific passing seasons in school history, will know this offense like the back of his hand by August. Likewise with the wide receivers, the running backs and offensive line; what you saw in 2011 will only resemble next year’s version in theory – it’ll be the same offense, just run to even greater perfection. As if the Mountaineers could get any more perfect.
“Our guys felt like they weren’t getting much credit, and they wanted to make a statement in this game,” Holgorsen said after the game. “The victory caps a great season and helps us lay the groundwork for the future.” Future? The future is now. Just ask Clemson.
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