WVU's opportunity arrives
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It was back in 2006 when an upstart coach named Rich Rodriguez took West Virginia to the Georgia Dome.
He made a name for himself. Put WVU in college football's national spotlight.
Today, first-year coach Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia have a similar opportunity against Clemson in the 8 p.m. Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium - with a twist. That twist is pulling off this upset shouldn't be as difficult.
Winning certainly won't be easy. And if you predict WVU will get blown out, no one will laugh. Clemson won the Atlantic Coast Conference in style, defeating Sugar Bowl participant Virginia Tech by 38-10. The Tigers, in fact, beat the Hokies twice this season, also winning 23-3. They also defeated teams like Auburn, last season's national champ, and Florida State. Have an impressive resume and impressive athletes.
But so did Georgia in 2006. The Southeastern Conference champion Bulldogs were playing in, basically, their backyard. They'd won seven of their last eight bowls. WVU had lost 11 of its last 12. And there's this: Georgia was a 14-point favorite; Clemson is a 3 1/2-point favorite.
Yet that upstart WVU coach won. And this upstart coach has a similar opportunity.
On Tuesday, the eve of the Orange Bowl, Holgorsen sounded ready.
"[Clemson is] extremely talented," said the Mountaineer coach. "I mean, I was watching from afar, which two months ago, who knew West Virginia and Clemson was going to play? ... They were on a roll, and everybody was taking notice of them. Tajh Boyd is a heck of a quarterback, and Sammy Watkins is a heck of a receiver, and then they've got Andre Ellington, their running back, a 1,000-yard guy. They've got guys offensively that are players.
"Shoot, that's going to be a challenge for us defensively to stop that. But part of the challenge that exists in a football game of this magnitude is you're going to play a quality opponent. And when you overcome as much adversity as we did throughout the year, and figure out ways to win, that taught us some lessons."
We'll see how well those lessons were learned tonight.
My take? There are many keys. A glaring one is how well WVU's offensive front handles the defensive front of Clemson, especially Tigers nose guard
Brandon Thompson, a 6-foot-2, 310-pound standout.
"No. 98," said WVU center Joe Madsen. "That's all I've been thinking about."
Madsen gets it.
"He's got real long arms," Madsen said. "He's powerful. He sometimes gets high [out of his stance]. We've seen that, so we'll try to focus on that. Just a big strong guy, so ..."
So, it presents a big problem. Madsen said he has a plan.
"Be stronger than him," said the 6-4, 300-pound junior. "Give more effort and finish. When he's going to give up, I'm not going to give up."
It's a concern, though, in this game. The whole Mountaineer line will be tested.
"I think we're average, at best," Madsen said of that line. "In some games we perform better than any in the nation. And in some, we kind of let it go. We need to find the level we need to be at."
There's been effort to do so.
"We've had a lot of sit-down talks, especially this week," Madsen said. "We've gone to dinner and talked about how we need to dominate. Give the best we can give."
Appropriately, the linemen went to Fort Lauderdale restaurant The Knife for the dinner. Appropriate, it is, because they'll have to be sharp.
"[Clemson's defensive front] is definitely up there," Madsen said. "They've got athletic guys on the outside to come off the edge. They're sprinters. They're kind of like [WVU's] Bruce Irvin. They're Bruces in their minds. We have to look out for that.
"Their base [defense] is not one with a lot of twists and stuff like that though. So that helps a lot."
What will also help a lot is if WVU can run the ball. Projected starting tailback Shawne Alston will help with tough yards, but the Mountaineers need to flash speed as well. Need chunks of real estate to help Smith's passing efforts. So keep an eye out for freshman Andrew Buie. He can be a wild card in this game.
Understand, though, that Clemson has had trouble with running quarterbacks. It's an Achilles heel. And the view from here is WVU's Geno Smith needs to poke that heel.
It's clear to all Mountaineer followers that Smith prefers not to run. He has had foot problems. And Holgorsen prefers Smith not to run. But this is a golden-Orange opportunity. It's time for Smith to run.
"Offensively, we need to counter," Holgorsen said. "We need to do a good job of taking care of the ball and getting the ball to Tavon [Austin] and getting the ball to Stedman [Bailey] and getting the ball to guys that need to step up."
Getting the ball to the aforementioned pair of receivers, though, won't be enough. We'll see what Holgorsen has up his sleeve. It's time for him to shine too.
On the flip side, WVU's defensive line needs solid play out of nose tackle Jorge Wright. The position is key to the 3-3-5 odd stack. Back in that 2006 game, Ernest Hunter was just enough. Later, Chris Neild was a standout. Now, with backup Josh Taylor out, Wright has to be strong. Very.
Also, WVU's linebackers must lift their level of play. Najee Goode has been, well, good. He'll need more help than ever, though, in this one.
Of course, on special teams, the Mountaineers have to at least push, which will be difficult.
On Tuesday, Holgorsen seemed relaxed and confident. He seemed happy with his team's preparation. More than happy, really.
"When we found out we were able to go to the Orange Bowl, the effort of our kids and the energy of our kids and the excitement level of our kids went through the roof," said the coach. "They were ready to do absolutely anything we put in front of them because of the magnitude of the game, because of the excitement of the game, being able to play a great opponent ...
"So they went to class, they were early to show up for workouts, they were on time and in our building more than they've ever been. So we got a tremendous amount of work in."
While hanging out on South Beach?
"It's been great," Holgorsen said. "We all had our concerns with it. It's a busy place, and there's a lot to do. I give our team a tremendous amount of credit."
Smith certainly sounds ready.
"It's a huge stage, but none of us are overwhelmed by it," said the quarterback. "We understand what's at stake. We believe it's just another game. We want to win the game."
And it can be done. The pick here is Clemson, but it can be done.
Which would lift Holgorsen's star, his recruiting efforts and again boost West Virginia's program.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.