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.
On to No. 4:
West Virginia 48, Oklahoma 28; Jan. 2, 2008
(Photo: Arizona Republic)
There are a few different directions a team can go when it heads into a bowl game without a head coach.
Down the man who guided them throughout the season, some teams crumble, unable to focus entirely on what’s taking place on the field when such uncertainty lingers away from it. Their inner turmoil materializes in the game and, before they can even realize it, their once-promising season ends disastrously. The 2009 Cincinnati team that got pounded, 51-24, by Florida in the Sugar Bowl a few weeks after Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame always comes to mind, at least for me.
On the opposite end of the ol’ spectrum, there’s the best-case scenario for teams in such a situation, when any doubt and instability galvanizes them and they accomplish what many believed they couldn’t.
Though other teams have embodied that spirit in the game’s history, few examples stand out more than West Virginia in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
The Mountaineers entered their game against Oklahoma as an eight-point underdog, given the unappealing task of neutralizing a dynamic offense spearheaded by a future Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick (Sam Bradford).
And those were just the problems they had to face externally. West Virginia not only had to emotionally and psychologically regroup from a Dec. 1 loss to Pitt that cost it a spot in the national championship, but it had to play the Fiesta Bowl without coach Rich Rodriguez, who had accepted the Michigan job not even three weeks earlier.
Under interim coach Bill Stewart, it faced a tall, daunting task. It responded about as well as it could have.
Pat White threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another 150 yards, freshman Noel Devine ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns in place of an injured Steve Slaton, and the Mountaineers rolled to a surprisingly easy 20-point victory against the No. 3 Sooners.
Of course, the win was important because it came in a BCS bowl game – the program’s second such win in a three-year span – but more pressingly, the victory effectively negated a wide-ranging search for Rodriguez’s replacement. Hoisted by West Virginia’s impressive performance, an opening that had been associated with names like Butch Jones, Terry Bowden and Jimbo Fisher was ultimately filled by Stewart.
Amidst the euphoria of the Oklahoma game, players and others around the program, like legendary coach Don Nehlen, hailed the decision to hire the man who helped bond a group that could have very easily ripped apart at the seams.
Others, though, weren’t so optimistic. Prominent West Virginia booster Ken Kendrick said “He is so overmatched it’s not even funny,” adding that “They had a wonderful architect and they hired the painter to build the next house,” referencing Rodriguez and Stewart, respectively. College football writer Stewart Mandel, then of Sports Illustrated, wrote that “the chances of him [Stewart] maintaining the program’s recent level of success are about as high as leaving a party at Lindsay Lohan’s place with your fur coat intact.”
For all of the good feelings that came from the win, the hiring of a tight ends coach whose only previous experience as a college head coach came with an 8-25 record in three seasons at VMI was understandably contentious.
Stewart’s on-field results in Morgantown were a mixed bag, though they far exceeded the doomsday scenario that some forecasted when he took over. What was more undeniable was that his four-year tenure was made possible – and was, in many ways, created -- by a win that had implications that resonated far beyond that night.
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