I REMEMBER THE elder gentleman like it was yesterday.After watching a less-than-memorable WVU football game, he scrunched up his face and threw his hands forward in disgust."No thuse," he said in broken Italian. "They had no thuse!"He meant, of course, the team had no enthusiasm.When the subject is WVU's upcoming Orange Bowl, however, I'm detecting little "thuse" from the Mountaineer fans. Maybe it's because West Virginia didn't blow through a weak Big East. Maybe it's because the Mountaineers struggled against some mediocre teams. Maybe it's because there's little faith WVU can defeat Clemson. (Seventy-six percent of those voting in an ESPN SportsNation poll of 133,240 favored Clemson as of Friday evening.)There is reason, however, for WVU fans to be fired up. In fact, there are many reasons.Let's start with it being the Orange Bowl. Maybe it hasn't hit yet, but we're talking about one of college football's premier bowls, set for 8 p.m. on Jan. 4, set apart from New Year's Day games, and televised by ESPN.Most are rating the game among the top six or seven bowl matchups among the 35.
ESPN apparently holds the game in high regard. Mike Tirico will be the play-by-play man, while Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski will be the analysts.If that doesn't grab you, understand Clemson is but a slight favorite - with good reason.Much of the buzz centers on Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd, who once was a WVU recruit. Boyd is coming off a fine season, capped by an MVP performance in the ACC title game.But here's a little secret: WVU's Geno Smith has been better. True, Boyd rushed for a net of 186 yards, while Smith was minus 59. Yet check the stats. Smith has more passing yards per game, a better completion percentage and a better pass efficiency rating.
If you're a die-hard Mountaineer fan, you've probably already heard a ton about Clemson's splashy 6-foot-1 freshman receiver, Sammy Watkins. And, hey, it's all deserved. He's catching the ball; he's running the ball; he's a special teams whirling dervish.Just like WVU's Tavon Austin.The difference is the Mountaineers have Stedman Bailey, who has better per-catch and per-game stats than both Austin and Watkins.
If you're sharp, you're probably pointing to the teams' lines. And Clemson probably has more individual talent there.Weird thing is, WVU's offensive line allowed fewer sacks than that of Clemson. And, on the other side, the Mountaineer defense fared better against the rush, had more tackles for loss and sacks.I'm not declaring WVU's fronts better. Just sayin'.If you want to examine the teams in regard to pass defense, well, there's no comparison. The Mountaineers are ranked higher in pass defense and pass defense efficiency.So there are plenty of reasons for WVU fans to perk up. And did I mention the game's in Miami?Clemson's coach, Dabo Swinney, certainly took note. Said he after the Tigers' win over Virginia Tech in the ACC title game:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to announce I will be taking my Clemson talents to South Beach."Fun reference to LeBron James' "decision."Appropriate. Because it's time for the teams - and fans - to have some fun.Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.