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WVU vs. Clemson in Orange Bowl

MORGANTOWN - Dana Holgorsen was talking Sunday night about what it was that enabled his West Virginia football team to turn things around in the last three games of the season and earn a share of the Big East championship.

The key, he said - and as he has said before - was getting the Mountaineers excited about playing each week.

Well, now that it's down to just one game to go, excitement shouldn't be an issue. Not when the game is the Orange Bowl.

West Virginia's late-season run paid off Sunday night when the BCS standings and bowl pairings were announced and the Mountaineers, as expected, were a part of it.

West Virginia (9-3) will play in a BCS bowl for the third time in the last seven years, making its first ever appearance in the Orange Bowl. The opponent will be Clemson (10-3), which on Saturday night crushed then-No. 5 Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, winning 38-10.

The game will be played Jan. 4 at Sun Life Stadium with an 8 p.m. kickoff. It is the last of the four regular BCS bowl games before the BCS national championship game five days later. The Rose and Fiesta bowls will be played Jan. 2 and the Sugar Bowl Jan. 3.

Excitement? Well, if it was an issue before it shouldn't be now.

"We challenged the guys to get a little bit more excited about playing the game,'' Holgorsen said, referring to the aftermath of a 38-35 loss at home to Louisville on Nov. 5 that appeared to doom any hopes the Mountaineers had of winning the Big East title. "When you face adversity like that, you've got to rally the troops and get everybody to focus on what's important, which is getting excited about playing the game of football.''

After winning the last three games against Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida - all in dramatic fashion with a blocked field goal against the Bearcats, a defensive stand against the Panthers and a rally against USF last Thursday capped by a last-play field goal - West Virginia had to wait around twice to see what would happen with its BCS bowl fate. The first piece of the puzzle fell into place Saturday, when Cincinnati beat Connecticut to forge a three-way tie for the league title and send the tie-break to the BCS standings.

And while it was widely believed WVU would be the highest ranked of the three tied teams - Cincinnati and Louisville were the others - it didn't become official until Sunday night.

West Virginia was ranked No. 23 in the final BCS standings, the same as last week. Cincinnati and Louisville remained outside the Top 25.

All of which sets up what might be one of the most entertaining of the BCS games, even though the teams are the lowest ranked among the 10 that earned bids. Clemson finished No. 15.

Both teams move the ball up and down the field and combine to average 900 yards per game - WVU 460 and Clemson 440. They combine to average over 600 yards passing and almost 70 points.

And the defenses can be torched at almost any time. West Virginia has given up 30 or more points five times this season and Clemson six.

Then again, just when one might expect an offensive explosion ...

"I think you've got two very capable offenses,'' said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "But just when you expect one thing, usually the other happens. ... I'd be surprised if there's not some points scored in this one. I don't think it'll be a 6-3 ball game like maybe some of the other games around. This should be an exciting game for the fans.''

That Clemson is West Virginia's opponent is not a surprise because the Tigers won the ACC title and that league's champion automatically goes to the Orange Bowl. That the Tigers won the league title, though, did come a bit out of nowhere.

After an 8-0 start that had the Tigers briefly in the national championship discussion, they lost three of four to nearly fall out of the Top 25 all together. In fact, Clemson lost badly to all three teams - 31-17 to Georgia Tech, 37-13 to North Carolina State and 34-13 to South Carolina. All three losses were on the road, and the only win in that stretch was a narrow victory over Wake Forest.

But Saturday night the Tigers bounced back strong, beating Virginia Tech for the second time this season (the first was 23-3, making Clemson 61-13 better than the Hokies, who nonetheless were invited to the Sugar Bowl to play Michigan). The game was tied 10-10 at halftime and Clemson dominated the second half behind quarterback Tajh Boyd, a former WVU verbal commitment.

In fact, that Boyd reneged on his verbal commitment to Bill Stewart's coaching staff is one of the reasons the Mountaineers now have Geno Smith at quarterback. Smith committed and signed with WVU only after Boyd was out of the equation.

This will be West Virginia's first appearance in the Orange Bowl and Clemson's fourth. The last time the Tigers were in the game was following the 1981 season, when they won the national championship.

It is the second-ever game between the teams. The other was Clemson's 27-7 win in the Gator Bowl at the end of the 1989 season. That was the last game at WVU for quarterback Major Harris.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.


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