You couldn’t pick up a newspaper in the Mountain State, or any where in the country for that matter, where the problems surrounding the Mountaineers and their preparation for Wednesday night’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl wasn’t a topic of great concern.
That’s what happens when you lose your final game of the regular season to your arch rival and days later lose your seventh year head coach.
Five other times during the bowl season teams headed into their contests under the leadership of an interim coach.
No. 9 West Virginia would be the sixth program to suffer through that situation when they faced—more than a touchdown favorite—No. 4 Oklahoma. However, unlike their predecessors, the Mountaineers refused to suffer their fate.
A rock solid defense, which limited the Sooners’ powerful running game to a mere 11 yards in the first 30 minutes, and an opportunistic offense led by two-time Big East Offensive Player of the Year Patrick White proved to be more than the Big 12 champions could handle.
The defense, which came into the game as the No. 4 prevent unit in the country, proved the doubters of the 3-3-5 alignment wrong by holding the Sooners to 15 points below their average of 43.4 points per game.
As for the offense White displayed the skills which made him the most dangerous player in the Big East, rushing for 151 yards on 20 carries and passing for another 176 yards on 10-of-19. But the junior was far from the only hero for the gold and blue.
There was senior Owen Schmitt.
The former-Division III player displayed the toughness which should win him an opportunity to play on Sundays when the NFL holds it annual draft in April. Not only did his 57-yard jaunt allow the Mountaineers to reach the end zone first, but his crushing blocks were a major key in WVU piling up 350 rushing yards against an Oklahoma defense which entered the fray allowing only 92 yards per outing.
Then there is freshman sensation Noel Devine.
When All-American Steve Slaton, who missed most of last year’s 38-35 victory over Georgia Tech in the Toyota Gator Bowl, went to the sideline with a hamstring injury in the first quarter the newest Mountaineer running back came in and eclipsed the 100-yard mark and scored a pair of touchdowns in his first postseason action of what looks to be an outstanding career in the gold and blue.
Finally, there was interim head coach Bill Stewart and the Mountaineer assistants that elected to stay in Morgantown and coach what could very well be their final games in the gold and blue.
If ever a coach needed an impressive victory to put on his resume Stewart received that with the Mountaineers’ 20-point win, 48-28, over the Sooners.
The New Martinsville native proved to be the glue that kept West Virginia’s players together following one of the toughest Decembers in the school’s history.
Then there is offensive coordinator Calvin Magee and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
With rumors flying around all month of the duo’s anticipated departure to Ann Arbor to join their former coach, the twosome instead put together a game plan which allowed the Mountaineers to take advantage of whatever the Sooners would give them. And, when Oklahoma’s coaching staff made the appropriate adjustments at the intermission, answered those adjustments with some of their own.
With the announcement that WVU’s search for a new head coach will continue until the end of the bowl season, all three earned at least an interview with independent consultant Chuck Neinas.
Only time will tell, however, whether or not the Mountaineers’ performance will earn one of them the top job when spring practice begins. However, if anyone listened to the post game interviews with White and others, the choice would appear to be an easy one.
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