Mountaineers enjoyed proving doubters wrong
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - Suffice it to say that motivation was not lacking for West Virginia's football team in Wednesday night's Orange Bowl.
In the four years that have passed since WVU's rout of heavily favored Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl that followed the 2007 season, a picture has remained in the entrance to the Puskar Center that includes the ESPN fan poll that counted 83 percent of the nation favoring the Sooners that night.
Soon it may be replaced by this year's version that showed 73 percent gave the nod in the Orange Bowl to Clemson.
"Definitely it was huge for me,'' wide receiver Tavon Austin said. "Me and Devon Brown were in the hotel and it's the first time I saw it. I kind of got mad and turned the TV off and went to sleep. But I came down with a great attitude.''
Playing the disrespect card, of course, is nothing new in college athletics. Somehow, even highly favored teams sometimes either pretend or are pushed into thinking they are somehow getting no respect. It is perhaps the most common motivational tool in all of sports.
With West Virginia, though, it probably rings a bit truer than with some other schools, especially in bowls. Consider that the Mountaineers come from what is universally regarded as the weakest of the BCS leagues - despite the ACC's 2-13 BCS bowl record now - and have been underdogs in all three BCS bowls in which they have played.
After Wednesday's 70-33 dismemberment of Clemson, WVU is now 3-0 in those bowls, and the last two haven't even been close.
"It just shows everybody that West Virginia isn't some sorry school,'' senior free safety Eain Smith said. "My freshman year, everybody counted us out against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. We blew them out. Everybody counted us out against Clemson. We blew them out. West Virginia's no school to be playing around with, and I think we made that statement.''
Quarterback Geno Smith smashed all sorts of records with his 401 yards passing and six touchdown tosses. He even ran for a seventh score for good measure.
But consider that four of those six touchdown passes might have traveled six feet between them. They were tiny little flips in the backfield in which Smith either underhanded or just lightly tossed the ball to a receiver motioning through the backfield.
Austin scored three of his four touchdowns on plays like that. Smith earned credit for his final TD pass of the night when he made the same flip to Willie Milhouse.
And Smith was quick to smile and understand when someone asked him if it felt like he cheated a bit in getting credit for six touchdown passes.
"Yeah, Tavon Austin is the real MVP. He won me the MVP,'' Smith said. "I can't say enough about that guy. He's one of the best players I've ever seen with and without the ball. He's so quick and guys have a hard time tackling him. He showed the nation what he can do.
"Like you said, it's kind of like I cheated. Tavon did a great job.''
Wednesday night's game changed, of course, on Darwin Cook's second-quarter, 99-yard fumble return when Clemson appeared to be going up 24-21 and instead fell further behind at 28-17. The Tigers managed a field goal on their next drive, but then gave up a stunning 35 straight points in what amounted to one quarter to fall behind 63-20.
And while WVU certainly seized the momentum with that play, at least a few Mountaineers also felt like Clemson made it easy for them, just as expected.
"Honestly, Clemson was a team that had shown us on film that when things get tough, they fold,'' Eain Smith said. "We knew if we could jump on them from the get-go, they would fold. And that's exactly what they did. When they're down, they don't have any fight left in them.
"I saw it when Cook took that fumble. You could just see it in their body language. I don't think they wanted to play anymore.''
Defensive end Bruce Irvin, who also caused a fumble that led to a touchdown later in the second quarter, didn't know about predicting what Clemson might do, but he did see it happen.
"I couldn't tell you about [how Clemson reacted to adversity during] the season. All I know is Clemson is explosive. They have a great offense,'' Irvin said. "But yeah, once we had them down by a couple of touchdowns, I think they threw the towel in.''
BRIEFLY: Eain Smith, by the way, was one of several Mountaineers who won in what amounted to a home game.
"I'm from Miami and I finished my career here in the Orange Bowl. I can't think of any better way to go out,'' Smith said. "And I graduated. You can write that down, too.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com.