Early look at the Mountaineers

After dangling at the edge of a cliff for the final three weeks of the season, the Mountaineers needed a vacation, and there's no better time and place for it than to spend New Year's in Miami.

That's right, the Mountaineers got their wish and are going to play in the BCS at their first Orange Bowl against Clemson, surprise champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference, who upset No. 5 Virginia Tech in the ACC title game.

The BCS bid caps a wild year for West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who takes his team to a BCS bowl in his first season as head coach, a season in which he wasn't even supposed to be the top man. The Orange Bowl says Chuck Fairbanks of Oklahoma in 1968 was the only other coach to guide his team to the game in his first year.

The Orange Bowl will be played Jan. 4.

The Mountaineers compiled a 9-3 record, while Clemson brings a 10-3 record.

West Virginia, Louisville and Cincinnati all shared the Big East title with 5-2 records, but the Mountaineers earned the Orange Bowl berth due to a better BCS ranking.

The Orange Bowl will be just the second time West Virginia has played Clemson, despite some ties between the two schools that included former WVU player and Morgantown native Tommy Bowden having coached the Tigers. The two teams met in the 1989 Gator Bowl, with Clemson scoring 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat WVU 27-7.

That was a Mountaineers team led by Hall of Fame quarterback Major Harris, who was held to 17 rushing yards and 119 passing yards on 11 completions in 29 attempts.

This year's game figures to offer a whole lot more offense than that.

"I'd be surprised if it was a 6-3 ballgame," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

The game matches two of the nation's top young quarterbacks, WVU's Geno Smith and Clemson's sophomore Tajh Boyd.

Interestingly, it well might have been Boyd running the show at WVU. He gave a verbal commitment in 2008 but withdrew it, reportedly after seeing the offense that Bill Stewart and Jeff Mullen were running, as he was looking for something more wide open.

The statistics of the two quarterbacks were similar through 12 games, before Boyd helped lead Clemson to the upset of Virginia Tech. Boyd had completed 254 of 424 passes (60 percent) for 3,338 yards and 28 touchdowns, while Smith has completed 314 of 483 passes (65 percent) for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Both teams struggled down the stretch. Early in the year, Clemson was one of the surprise teams in the country, as it won eight straight but went into a tailspin in which it lost three of its final regular-season four games, beating only Wake Forest. Each of the three losses was one-sided: 31-17 at Georgia Tech, 37-13 at N.C. State, and 34-13 at South Carolina.

"We will not treat it like a vacation," Holgorsen said. "We want them to enjoy it, but they have got to get the work done and be competitive." (Getty Images)
West Virginia suffered a big setback when it lost to Syracuse in midseason, and a narrow loss to Louisville put the Mountaineers in trouble as the final three games approached.

"Since then, we challenged the guys to get a little more excited about playing the game," Holgorsen said. "Three games in a row, it came down to the last minute, maybe even the last seconds, but we told them, 'You gotta keep playing, gotta keep playing and find a way to win in the end.'"

And that is just what the Mountaineers did, eking out victories over Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida, then needing to sweat out Cincinnati's game with Connecticut before becoming the BCS representative of the Big East.

The Mountaineers have 12 players from South Florida, six of them starters and four from Miramar High.

"We will not treat it like a vacation," Holgorsen said. "We want them to enjoy it, but they have got to get the work done and be competitive."

PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Geno Smith, the most prolific passer in Mountaineers history, broke nearly all of Marc Bulger's school single-season passing records, and he should own all of the career records when he finishes his career next year. Smith is equally adept throwing short and long, and he makes great use of his two greatest weapons, receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Smith finished the year with 25 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions.

* WR Stedman Bailey, an acrobatic receiver with large, strong hands, saved the season with a diving catch to set up the game-winning field goal against South Florida, giving him 67 receptions for a school record 1,197 yards. A high school teammate of QB Geno Smith in Miramar, Fla., he caught 11 touchdowns. He's the team's greatest deep threat.

* SR Tavon Austin, nimble and fleet, is the breakaway threat that any coach would like to make use of. Used in the slot, he draws double coverage because a safety just can't cover him. He turns screens and short passes into long gains, and he set the school record with 84 catches this season. Austin also is one of the nation's premier kickoff returners, averaging 26.5 per return with two taken 90 or more yards for touchdowns. He also is dangerous as a punt returner, but he sometimes had problems fielding them.

* DT Julian Miller battled a high ankle sprain all season, but when healthy, he showed what he could do, tying the school record with four sacks in the Pitt game. Undersized for a defensive tackle, he is strong, quick pass rusher and the vocal leader of the defensive unit.

BOWL HISTORY: West Virginia is 13-17 in bowl games and has lost its last two, including a 23-7 loss to North Carolina State in last year's Champs Sports Bowl. This will be the Mountaineers' 10th consecutive bowl appearance. They have won their only two BCS appearances, beating Georgia 38-35 in the 2005 Sugar Bowl played in Atlanta, and beating Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. West Virginia suffered through an eight-game bowl losing streak from 1982 to through 1998, ending it in Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen's final game in the 2000 Music City Bowl.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Offense is what people want to see, but the only way to win a game is to stop people. The team that gets the most stops and creates the most turnovers will win the game." -- Coach Dana Holgorsen, on the idea that the Orange Bowl will be an offensive shootout between his team and Clemson.

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