Mountaineers have high hopes for next season
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - As late Wednesday night turned into early Thursday morning, West Virginia's football players just couldn't wipe the ear-to-ear grins off their faces.
Being happy about a win is nothing out of the ordinary, of course, but this was different. This wasn't just satisfaction and joy, it was downright giddiness, replete with dancing in the locker room.
Of course, a 70-33 rout will do that. A 70-33 rout in a BCS bowl game against a top 15 opponent is pretty special, not to mention unusual; actually, unprecedented.
So there was good reason for celebration after that stunning dismantling of Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
But there was something else, too, that had these Mountaineers excited. The sweat hadn't even dried from the last game of the 2011 season before they were already excitedly talking about 2012.
"I've definitely thought about that. And after this game I think it shows we can play with any team in the country,'' WVU receiver Tavon Austin said after his 11-catch, four-touchdown performance proved, at least, that he can play with anyone. "Hopefully all of us come back and we can have a try at it.
"If we take care of our business in the off-season on all three sides of the ball, everybody buys in and gets a lot stronger and a lot faster, hopefully we can play for the national championship."
There are, of course, two intriguing points in that statement. One, about a 2012 national championship, was made over and over again in West Virginia's locker room after the Mountaineers seemingly broke every record in the books - including the record for most records? - during a stunning performance that had to boost confidence in what Dana Holgorsen's offense is capable of doing.
"We were already confident,'' said quarterback Geno Smith, he of the 401 passing yards, six TD passes and seven total scores. "With Coach Holgorsen, you've got to be confident because he's a genius. We just want to come back and make sure we work twice as hard as we did last year, and make sure we can say we're contenders for a national championship.''
The other point that Austin brought up, however, was more concrete. That was the one about players coming back. In the wake of so many stunning performances coming on the heels of some fairly stunning regular seasons, it was natural for some of the Mountaineers to consider that perhaps they had accomplished all that they could in college, and that the NFL was calling. Valid considerations or not, those are the kinds of thoughts that creep into players' heads, or are placed there by others.
That doesn't seem to be an issue, though, at least with WVU's big three on offense - Smith, Austin and Stedman Bailey. All came in together three years ago, and all are now eligible to enter the draft.
Austin, though, said that's not happening.
"At first I was worried about a couple of people,'' said Austin, who admits he flirted with the idea. "I'm not going to say any names, but most of them were on defense. And on offense, we have a couple of people who could have left. But we know this is our time, so we're all going to come back.''
Austin might be the best underclassman prospect the Mountaineers have and would probably go in the top half of the NFL draft. Given his small size and the way he played this season and on Wednesday night, his stock might never be higher.
But Austin has apparently studied the landscape pretty closely.
"You definitely do think about it, but at the same time you've got to look at a lot of people who are coming out,'' said Austin, who had 280 all-purpose yards against Clemson and finished the season leading the nation in that category. "I just believe that next year's going to be my year, so I'm definitely going to stay one more round, just grind it out and hopefully I get the chance to get to the next level.
"There's a lot of big-time wide receivers coming out. I'm not saying they're better than me, but just as far as size, a lot of them are much bigger than me. I'm sure I can get the job done, but I'm going to stick around one more year and hopefully I get my chance after that.''
And with Austin remaining, as well as Smith and Bailey, WVU goes into next season missing virtually none of the skill players who made this offense so dangerous. And as a bonus, there were but four senior starters on WVU's defense in the Orange Bowl.
All of which leaves a lot of promise for a team that next season doesn't yet know what conference it will play in, but knows it will have the firepower to compete wherever it lands.
"We scored some points and we did some things, but we're not satisfied,'' Smith said. "We still want to come back and do it all over again.
"The sky's the limit for this offense. We just have to make sure we stay level-headed and work hard and remember the things that got us here.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.