Three highlight games in West Virginia’s bowl history
When West Virginia lines up against Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl it will be the 33rd time a Mountaineer team has played in a bowl game.
Eleven different coaches have led West Virginia teams to bowl-game finishes. Clarence “Doc” Spears was the first. Don Nehlen (11 bowl games) did it the most times. There have been three trips to the Sugar Bowl, two times the Mountaineers played in the Fiesta Bowl, and the one visit to the Orange Bowl resulted in a 70-33 win over Clemson to culminate the 2011 campaign and Dana Holgorsen’s first season.
West Virginia is 14-18 overall in its long bowl history.
The largest crowd ever to witness a West Virginia bowl game came in the January of 2010 Gator Bowl when 84,129 were on hand in Jacksonville to see Coach Bobby Bowden’s swansong at Florida State. The Seminoles won, 33-21. Bowden had won two bowl games while in Morgantown as WVU’s coach.
West Virginia’s first brush with success in a major bowl game came in the retooled Sugar Bowl game following the 2005 season.
Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans so the bowl game was hurriedly reorganized and moved to Atlanta and its Georgia Dome. Georgia was the opponent.
The morning of the game there was a mine disaster in Tallmansville, West Virginia where 13 miners were trapped underground.
What else could happen to the 2006 Sugar Bowl?
West Virginia happened.
The Mountaineers of soon-to-be-reviled coach Rich Rodriguez jetted out to a 28-0 lead over the staggered Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference.
Georgia moved smartly after the lead.
With less than two minutes remaining, West Virginia’s shrinking lead was at 38-35. Facing a fourth-and-six trouble spot on its own 45, Rodriguez called for punter Phil Brady to run from punt formation. Brady’s first down run helped melt the clock to all zeroes . . . and the Mountaineers had a three-point win.
Freshman running back Steve Slaton ran for 204 yards and three touchdowns. Owen Schmitt had 82 rushing yards on only nine carries. Quarterback Pat White threw sparingly but completed 11 of his 14 passes for 129 yards. He suffered no interceptions.
Then came the 2008 Fiesta Bowl in early January after a tumultuous end to the 2007 regular season.
West Virginia had lost a stunning 13-9 verdict to a Pittsburgh team with a losing record. Rodriguez had been in secret negotiations with Michigan to become the coach of the Wolverines.
After the loss to Pittsburgh, Rodriguez accepted the Michigan offer. And West Virginia placed assistant coach Bill Stewart in charge of preparing for the Fiesta Bowl against well-thought-of Oklahoma.
Slaton was hurt in the first quarter and couldn’t return to the game. But it seemed the Mountaineers still had all the psychological motivation and they began to batter the Sooner defense.
White would run for 150 yards and throw for 176 yards and two scores. The team rushed for 349 yards. Noel Devine had 12 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Darius Reynaud made five catches and scored once.
The Mountaineers won, 48-28, against an Oklahoma team that had averaged 43 points a game.
In the aftermath of the joyous victory celebration and with the euphoria of the win still wafting over the Phoenix area, Stewart was named the new head coach at about 4 a.m. in the morning.
West Virginia’s only trip to the Orange Bowl resulted in a 70-33 win over Clemson just a few years ago following the 2011 season — Coach Dana Holgorsen’s first after replacing Stewart.
There were eight team or individual bowl records shattered by those Mountaineers.
West Virginia had completed the 2011 season in a three-way tie for the Big East Conference title. By being the highest-rated team of the three tied at the top, West Virginia received the prestigious bowl invitation.
A blur of scoring in the first half had the Mountaineers winging away to a 49-20 lead at the intermission.
Geno Smith had 407 passing yards and six touchdown throws. He even ran for one score. Tavon Austin had 12 catches for 123 yards and four touchdowns. West Virginia had 589 yards of total offense against Dabo Swinney’s suddenly toothless defense.
Even with all the offensive records falling in piles, Darwin Cook’s 99-yard touchdown return of a Clemson fumble was a key play in the whirlwind of events.
This year’s Liberty Bowl appearance will be Holgorsen’s third bowl in his four seasons.
The bowling was begun by Coach Spears way back when there weren’t many bowls to seek shelter in. And now there are 38 bowls . . . with West Virginia visiting the home of Elvis Presley, Beale Street and St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis.