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.