Mighty Mountaineers

It might not be the game West Virginia wanted to play in coming into the 2010 football season.

It might not be the game West Virginia wanted to play in coming into the 2010 football season. It might not even be the game they should be playing in, but Orlando, Fla. in December is a very nice consolation prize when you let the Big East championship slip through your fingers.

The No. 22-ranked Mountaineers (9-3) are taking on North Carolina State (8-4) of the Atlantic Coast Conference in a matchup of high-octane offense against unyielding defense in the Champs Sports Bowl.

N.C. State possesses one of the nation's most prolific passing attacks, led by quarterback Russell Wilson. The Wolfpack is 19th in the nation in passing, throwing for 281 yards per game and 26 touchdowns.

WVU, however, is 11th in pass defense, giving up just 166 yards a game, and is second in the nation in scoring defense at 12.75 points a game. WVU gave no team more than 21 points and gave up 15 touchdowns all year, fewest in the nation.

The Mountaineers came into the season believing they could make their way to the BCS, but they fumbled their chances away at Connecticut, leaving them on the outside as the Huskies go to the Fiesta Bowl.

While the defense exceeded all expectations, the offense took a long time to get untracked with Heisman candidate Noel Devine suffering a foot and ankle injury that kept him to fewer than 1,000 rushing yards.

In truth, the problem was youth as three sophomores proved to be key players -- quarterback Geno Smith, wide receiver Tavon Auston and fullback Ryan Clarke.

The Mountaineers ran into turnovers problems in all three losses -- each by less than a touchdown -- as they fell at LSU, at home against Syracuse and then on the road at Connecticut in the game that cost them a BCS bid.

It took a four-game winning streak to save the season, as the young players developed.

"Over the last month we have shown the people of West Virginia and the nation that West Virginia is still a team very much to be reckoned with," coach Bill Stewart said. "We showed great resolve. That's the Mountaineer way."

West Virginia's offense came to life during the winning streak, twice scoring 35 points and once 37. Geno Smith ended the season with a magnificent performance as he threw for 352 yards against Rutgers. The Mountaineers' offense had its first 500-yard game of the year in that contest.


-- QB Geno Smith grew as the season went on. A sophomore in his first season of starting, Smith hinted at greatness early in the season but hadn't worked out all the kinks -- favorite receiver, when to run, etc. But the season turned on his arm. In the final victory at Rutgers, he completed 23 of 29 passes for a career-high 352 yards, the most at the school since Marc Bulger threw for 429 in the 1998 Carquest Bowl.

-- WR Tavon Austin has become the fuel that feeds the WVU fire. Austin, like QB Geno Smith, is a sophomore and the two spent much time working together over the summer. A converted running back, the diminutive Austin is among the most elusive players in college football. As WVU won its final four games to tie for the Big East title, he scored six touchdowns. He had a career-high 121 yards receiving against Rutgers in the regular-season finale and added a 46-yard rush for a touchdown right up the middle when he lined up at tailback.

-- LB J.T. Thomas is part of a unit that is among the best defenses anywhere, second in the nation in total defense. Thomas is a senior, the son of a former WVU player of the same name, and probably the inspirational leader of the defense from his weakside linebacker spot.

Blessed with great speed and instincts, he finished the season with 63 tackles, including seven for loss and 2.5 sacks. He also broke up four passes and had two fumble recoveries.

BOWL HISTORY: The Mountaineers' recent bowl history has been far more noteworthy than it was in the Don Nehlen era. When Nehlen won the 2000 Music City Bowl, it ended a string of eight straight bowl losses but set the tone for the Mountaineers to build into a power in the 2000s. However, it took more tough times as coach Rich Rodriguez's bowl experience got off to a dismal start, losing to Virginia in the 2002 Continental Tire Bowl, to Maryland by an embarrassing 41-7 score in the 2004 Toyota Gator Bowl and to Florida State in that same bowl the next year.

In 2006, Rodriguez got it right, beating Georgia, 38-33, in the Nokia Sugar Bowl and then Georgia, 38-35 in the Toyota Bowl. In 2008, Bill Stewart was named interim coach and won the full-time job with a stunning upset of Oklahoma in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The Mountaineers followed that up by edging North Carolina in the 2008 Meinke Car Care Bowl before last year losing to Florida State in Bobby Bowden's emotional farewell game in the Gator Bowl, 33-21.

West Virginia's all-time bowl record is 13-16, but coach Bill Stewart 2-1 with victories over Oklahoma and North Carolina.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is a big bowl. I think there's a game on later that night but at 6 p.m., we'll be America's game. We will be the only one on at that time." -- Coach Bill Stewart, on missing out on the BCS but landing the Champs Sports Bowl.

-- NG Chris Neild, the heart and soul of the defense, was slowed in the final game by a hamstring injury. He expected to play but did not get many snaps as he could not get it loose. He is expected back by bowl time.

-- RB Noel Devine still remains hobbled with a foot and ankle injury that has held him to just 883 yards this season. With three weeks to heal, though, he could be at full speed for his final college game.

-- TE Chris Snook has missed much of the season due to a head injury and is not expected back for the bowl game.

-- RB Shawne Alston has benefited from Noel Devine's injury, as he has moved in and given WVU a quality big back to run to go with Devine's juking, spinning style.

-- CB Brandon Hogan left the Rutgers game with a knee injury but said after the game that it was minor and that he would be ready to practice for the bowl.

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