Unforgettable, for the wrong reason
MORGANTOWN - It was arguably the defining play of West Virginia's 2011 football season, even if it came a few days into 2012.
It was certainly the most important.
The play that ignited the Mountaineers' 70-33 smackdown of Clemson in the Orange Bowl three months ago was not one of Geno Smith's six touchdown passes or his 407 passing yards, nor one of Tavon Austin's 12 catches, four touchdowns or 123 yards receiving.
Instead, it was a defensive play.
Darwin Cook's 99-yard fumble return turned what appeared certain to be a go-ahead touchdown for Clemson early in the second quarter into the ignition of one of the most lopsided routs in bowl history.
It also made Cook's a household name, if not for the impact it had on the game then for the literal impact it had on Obie, the Orange Bowl mascot.
"I hear it every day,'' Cook said this week. "I mean, my face isn't really that [well known]. But when you say my name, it's 'Oh, yeah, you tackled the Orange.' And I say, 'Yeah, I'm the guy that tackled the Orange.' ''
That the play is remembered chiefly for what happened after it was over is perhaps a disservice to Cook. After all, it was the play of the game even before its rather awkward conclusion.
Recall that West Virginia was leading favored Clemson at the time, 21-17. The Mountaineers were, in fact, on a roll, having scored on three straight possessions after falling behind 7-0, but this was still a game very much up for grabs. And Clemson appeared ready to seize the momentum after marching 75 yards in eight plays and gaining a first down at the WVU 3-yard line.
That's when Clemson's Andre Ellington, who to that point already had rushed for 115 yards, took a handoff and charged into the middle of the line. He pushed forward with relative ease and landed on the goal line. The Tigers might have led 24-21.
Except that Ellington didn't have the ball. Doug Rigg had managed to reach in with his one good hand and strip the ball loose. Cook, who was behind the play, simply reached down and grabbed it out of the mass of humanity, turned and raced the other way, Keith Tandy in tow as an unnecessary escort.
Ninety-nine rather laborious yards later, Cook crossed the goal line and, after the requisite review confirmed the play's legitimacy, West Virginia led 28-17. By halftime it was 49-20 and the rout was on.
And Cook was still trying to figure out just what had happened.
"I blacked out,'' Cook said. "When something like that happens you just lose control. I didn't even know I hit the Orange. I thought I hit a [police] officer or something. You just grab onto something.''
By the time it was all over, Cook fully realized the implications of the play, but had no idea that the most talked-about part of it was what happened after he crossed the goal line, flipped the ball away - dangerously close to the goal line, by the way - and ran through the end zone.
That's when he stuck out his left arm just before he was about to hit the wall and pretty much clotheslined Obie, the diminutive Orange Bowl mascot.
"Every time I see it, I can't believe it was me,'' Cook said. "I dropped the ball and I was so tired I just grabbed onto the first thing I could. And I guess it was the Orange.''
It wasn't until afterward that Cook discovered that the person inside the Obie costume was a girl.
"It's a girl?'' Cook said in shock when told after the game that he'd flattened a female. "Oh, man, tell her I apologize.''
Three months later, Cook is still hearing more about the aftermath of the play than about the play itself. And if nothing else, he's realized that it made him even more famous, which is something Cook will never forget.
"Everybody knows me because of that,'' Cook said. "So that's probably what I'm going to do in the future. If I ever score again, I'm probably going to tackle every mascot I see.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.