For WVU players, an unforgettable experience
IT WAS EARLY Thursday morning, around 1:30 a.m., deep in the bowels of Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
WVU football favorite Bruce Irvin had not grasped what his team had just accomplished. It had defeated Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson by a whopping 70-33 score. The Mountaineers had put on a performance for the ages. Seventy points had never been put onto a scoreboard in a bowl game in college football history.
"Not by Ohio State?" asked Irvin incredulously.
He was told no.
"Damn," he said. "Damn. Damn! I'm speechless. I can't believe we put up 70 points myself."
"I'm so glad I got to be a part of it. We brought it home for the great state of West Virginia. Those people are always behind us, no matter the situation, no matter the team we're playing. We got it done for them."
When the Discover Orange Bowl was completed, however, one couldn't help but be happy for the players in the WVU locker room.
There was Irvin, the flashy defensive end. His smile lit up the room.
"It's the best feeling in the world, especially since people doubted us," Irvin said, chip still firmly planted on his shoulder. "We got it done. We kept playing and fighting and the defense stepped up big."
Off to his side was his less flashy - but nonetheless effective - running mate at end, Julian Miller, who had been the NCAA's active career sack leader. He entered WVU as a promising, yet skinny, freshman. Now his college career is over. He went out in a blaze of glory.
"This means so much," Miller said. "Being here for five years and playing West Virginia football has been amazing. I never would have imagined the type of career I've had.
"I knew I wanted to play ball here. I knew I wanted to be great. But I didn't know I'd be this good and be able to help lead this team - which really didn't have an identity coming into the season - to an Orange Bowl championship.
"This is what you prepare for in the summers, springs, winters. It's this moment right here. The thing that Coach [Bill Kirelawich] had me and Josh Taylor tell the younger guys on the defensive line is we'd never been in a BCS game. There's a certain feeling in the atmosphere after you've won a BCS game. It's something that will give motivation down the road to have this feeling again.
"Just being at one [BCS game] as a redshirt freshman - and not playing - was great. To have this as a feeling this year? Knowing I helped out? It just feels amazing."
He made a prediction.
"I think looking further down the road, if we wind up staying in the Big East a couple more years or move to the Big 12, it just looks up from here," Miller said. "West Virginia football, after this win, is more on the map than ever before."
Back against the other locker room wall, and at the other end of the spectrum, was one of WVU's freshmen, Andrew Buie.
"It gives us momentum heading into the future," Buie smiled. "We'll be better prepared."
Buie made one of the game's many spectacular plays when he caught a first-quarter pass, was seemingly tackled by Clemson safety Rashard Hall, but rolled over the defender, without being downed, and continued down the right sideline. ("I caught it, felt the defender. Felt like I was going down to the ground," Buie said. "His body ended up being in front of me. The whistle never blew, so I got up and continued the play. I watched [Auburn's] Michael Dyer make a similar type play in the national championship last year.")
Buie was a spark within that WVU collection of players.
"We played within the coaches' system," Buie said. "We did what the coaches told us. We figured if we did that, we'd be pretty much an unbeatable team."
Then there was Tyler Rader, the state product who persevered, the pride of Cross Lanes, a 6-foot-3 redshirt senior offensive lineman, who helped WVU to a 10-3 final record and that Orange Bowl win.
"It's been five years," Rader said. "Different positions. A couple injuries. A few coaches. But this makes it all worthwhile. All the blood, sweat and tears ... this moment is just amazing.
"Coach [Dana] Holgorsen said we had to play four quarters. I guess you can say during the fourth quarter we were a little lackadaisical. But those first three quarters were just balls-to-the-wall amazing."
Rader dished credit to his coaches, including offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
"Coach Bedenbaugh, all through bowl camp, stressed fundamentals to us," Rader said. "Hands inside, low pads ... And Coach Holgorsen had a great game plan. The huddle thing, getting them off-guard, worked perfectly. We had wider splits. That really helped get running lanes. The whole plan we had just came together."
Just like the players in that locker room. The different players. The young ones and the veterans. The flashy ones and the ones that had to show up a little early to get an edge.
Yet the Nitro High product pointed to Holgorsen again.
"He gave me a chance when most weren't," Rader said. "I appreciate that. I did the most with it. As a coach, he's a genius. He's one of the best minds offensively in college football, if not the pros. The stuff he brings is just amazing. The things I've learned from him and his coaching staff, how to dissect defenses and stuff, is just amazing.
"Seventy points in the Orange Bowl against the 15th-ranked team. That speaks for itself."
As did the performance of the players Wednesday night in South Florida.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.