In this college football desert of July, and with this upcoming season marking the 10th anniversary of West Virginia’s 2005 team that won the Sugar Bowl, I’ve decided to count down the 10 most important Mountaineers games of the past decade.
Over the next three weeks, we’ll work from 10 to one, with one entry appearing every few days. Lists like this are arbitrary by nature, but the hope here is to find the games that had the biggest impact on the West Virginia program both at that time and well into the future. So, before we get going, a disclaimer: these aren’t necessarily the best, most compelling games, but rather the ones that had the most profound role in steering the Mountaineers to where they are today.
We’re one away from the top, so let’s get to No. 2:
West Virginia 38, Georgia 35; Jan. 2, 2006
(Photo: Matt Freed / Post-Gazette)
As the calendar turned to 2006, most everything pertaining to West Virginia was in need of some – or really any – good news.
The school’s football team was about to play in the Sugar Bowl, but it did so as a sizable underdog, both to its opponent and its own history as a program. In the game, it was representing a beleaguered conference, one whose guaranteed place in the BCS was becoming an increasingly debated topic. Perhaps most pressingly, it took to the field that night playing before an entire state that had greater concerns than the game that was about to take place.
A win against Georgia would mean something more than just receiving a trophy and being the lead story on SportsCenter. With the 38-35 victory, the Mountaineers discovered that was clearly the case.
Playing the SEC champion in what amounted to a home game – because of Hurricane Katrina a few months earlier, the game was moved from its traditional site in the Superdome to the Georgia Dome – West Virginia raced out to a 28-0 lead in the game’s first 16 minutes, an unexpected onslaught driven by a three-headed offensive threat of freshmen Steve Slaton (who finished with a Sugar Bowl record 204 rushing yards), Pat White and Darius Reynaud.
The initial shock would wear off as Georgia clawed back into the game, cutting the deficit to 31-21 by halftime and getting within a field goal on two separate occasions.
But on the final one of those instances, holding on to a 38-35 lead, the Mountaineers reversed all of that negative momentum and secured the win with a single, and unmistakably ballsy, play. With the ball at the Georgia 48, with a fourth-and-six and 1:45 remaining, West Virginia was forced to punt and give the Bulldogs a chance to force overtime.
Or so it seemed. Punter Phil Brady took the long snap and began the same motion he would on a normal punt. But after that movement, and as both teams dashed up the field toward the returner, Brady tucked the ball under his left arm and ran, sprinting four yards past the first down marker to seal the upset. In the long history of West Virginia football, it’s undoubtedly one of the quintessential, or at least most memorable, plays.
“The fourth and sixth, really there was a little bit of debate but it wasn’t much,” Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez said after the game. “It was kind of a consensus thing. The coaches in the box said, ‘Hey, let's do it.’ Butch [Jones, then the team’s wide receivers coach who also coached the punt team] said ‘Let's do it’ and I said ‘Let’s do it, it looks like it’s there.’”
West Virginia entered the game with a better record than Georgia and was only four spots behind the Bulldogs in the BCS standings, but given the climate of the time, the victory was a shock, a reverberation that uplifted the entire Mountaineers program.
For all of its historical success, West Virginia entered the Sugar Bowl with a 1-11 record in its previous 12 bowl games and it had never won a bowl game that comprised the BCS at the time (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar or Orange).
The win, however, wasn’t just about the football team that raised the trophy; it was about its conference, too. Following the defections of Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC in 2004, the Big East was viewed as a feeble league, one widely seen as undeserving of a spot at the proverbial table with the best conferences in the sport. That perception was only strengthened the season before that fateful Sugar Bowl, when an 8-4 Pitt team was waxed in the Fiesta Bowl, 35-7, by Utah, the first team from a non-major conference to appear in a BCS bowl.
The Big East, at least from a perception standpoint, never achieved wide-ranging respect before its ultimate death in 2013. But West Virginia’s win in some way helped legitimize the league’s status as a BCS participant, something that ignited a brief period in which schools like West Virginia, Louisville, Rutgers and even South Florida emerged as national championship contenders.
And then, of course, there were the non-football implications. On the same day the Sugar Bowl was played, there was an explosion in the Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va. The disaster, the worst in West Virginia since the 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster, trapped 13 miners for about two days and forced then-governor Joe Manchin to rush home from Atlanta to tend to the situation.
As Chris Dufresne wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “one of the proudest moments in state history was about to collide with one of its most tragic.” While the state was forced to endure the horror that gripped it, the Sugar Bowl provided a brief reprieve and gave it a proud moment at a time when it needed it the most.
The win was as important as any in school history, not simply because of what it did for the West Virginia football program, but because of how it impacted those beyond it.