Arash Markazi: Mountaineers ignore distractions to win Fiesta - Sports Illustrated

Survivor: West Virginia

Publish date:

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.

White, as he has done all year, fueled West Virginia's offense with his quick feet running for 150 yards on 19 carries, adding 176 yards and two touchdowns through the air. While West Virginia knocked down Bradford on blitzes, sometimes with nothing more than a stiff arm, White eluded Oklahoma's rush and used the Sooners' aggressiveness to his advantage.

The threat White posed every time he touched the ball served as the perfect decoy for West Virginia's first two touchdowns. While defenders keyed on White, the Mountaineers created running room for mohawked fullback Owen Schmidt, who rumbled down the West Virginia sideline for a 57-yard touchdown to give it a 13-3 lead. Less than three minutes later, White faked a draw run before finding Darius Reynaud wide open in the end zone, no Oklahoma player within 10 yards of him.

"We surprised the hell out of them tonight," said Reynaud. "They couldn't stop us. It was too much speed for them. The whole world was against us but we overwhelmed everybody."

West Virginia's domination of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball must have come as a shock to Oklahoma, which inexplicably decided to go for a fourth-and-one on its own 45-yard line with 1:09 left in the first half. The Sooners were stopped for a loss -- as they were on most of their runs, totaling 10 yards on 16 first-half carries -- and gave the ball back to West Virginia. McAffe ended up missing his second field goal of the game, saving Bob Stoops some face and preventing West Virginia from taking a 20-point lead into the half.

Suddenly it was Stoops who was forced to pull the tricks out of his bag in a desperate attempt for a win. After a failed two-point conversion pulled the Sooners within a touchdown 20-15, Oklahoma would attempt an onside kick. West Virginia recovered it and six plays later, Noel Devine, who tallied 156 total yards and two touchdowns, ran 17 yards untouched to give West Virginia a 27-15 lead. Oklahoma wasn't just being out-hustled, it was being out-muscled by a team that was clearly better than the squad Stewart had called "the best team in the country."

Wasn't that what we used to call those bearded boys in Morgantown?

White saved his most scintillating run for the end, which in this Fiesta Bowl came in the third quarter, when he ran around Oklahoma's defense for 42 yards to the Sooners' 30-yard line. On the very next play he pitched the ball to Reynaud, who put the game away by diving into the end zone, signifying West Virginia's own leap back into the consciousness of college football fans everywhere.

"Tonight was just another night at the office," White said matter of factly in front of his locker room. "We've been like this all year."

After the touchdown, Stewart, who broke the 0-for-6 mark interim coaches had in bowl games, hugged White and held his helmet, looked into his eyes and grinned. No words were spoken. None were needed. They were making their statements all over the football field.

"He has more respect than, well, most people in that program from the players," said White, who along with the rest of his teammates lobbied for Stewart to have the "interim" tag removed from his name. "We love him. He respects us and he treats us like men and we wanted him to get his first win as a head coach so bad."

If it wasn't already before, University of Phoenix Stadium officially became Oklahoma's domed house of horrors, a desert dungeon where high hopes and big dreams go to die in the new year. A resolution to never return to the scene of the crime would be completely understandable.

In case his running wasn't impressive enough, White put the final dagger in Oklahoma's heart with a picture perfect 79-yard TD strike to Tito Gonzales to give West Virginia a 41-21 lead. Suddenly a Fiesta Bowl that was supposed to be another BCS blowout was turning into just that -- but for the team everyone had forgotten about.

Well, everyone except for the gold-and-blue fans standing behind the Mountaineers, their perseverance summed up by one fan's hand-written sign: We Will Never Leave You.

An amended sign in the press box and around most of America probably should have read: We Should Never Have Forgotten You.