One Final Test

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- West Virginia's retooled offensive line faced many formidable tests throughout the 2011 season. How it grades out will be determined by the way it fares against the last of those opponents, Clemson, in Wednesday night's Orange Bowl.

It certainly wasn't an easy transition to the Dana Holgorsen offense for the Mountaineers' front five. They learned new techniques and tactics from their position coach, Bill Bedenbaugh, throughout spring practice and August's preseason camp.

And then came the hard part: the schedule.

Right off the bat, the O-line faced one of the nation's premier players in Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry.

In one of the surprises of the early season, WVU fared exceptionally well against LSU's highly-regarded defensive line -- one that was ultimately strong enough to help power the Tigers to an undefeated season and a spot in the BCS championship game.

"It kind of motivated us and gave us more confidence," center Joe Madsen said of that game, which went in the books as a 47-21 loss but saw the Mountaineer offense rack up more than 500 yards against LSU's stout defense.

"You go up against a team like that and don't give up any sacks, you say, ‘That's the best defense out there right now. They're No. 1. So we can do that every game.'"

But it's not as though Bedenbaugh's charges went through the rest of the season unscathed. They were at least part of the reason the offense sputtered a bit late, winning only 24-21 over Cincinnati and 21-20 against Pitt.

All told, though, the brutal schedule may have had something to do with that. West Virginia faced eight of the nation's top 16 teams in terms of tackles for loss in the regular season (statistics that, through the bowl games played thus far, have changed to make that eight of the country's top 22 instead).

Clemson, by that same metric, should not be nearly as intimidating. The Tigers are only 86th nationally in tackles for loss.

But the Tigers' Andre Branch is 10th in the nation in sacks, finishing the season with 10.5 takedowns of opposing quarterbacks. He is part of what WVU senior left tackle Don Barclay called a "different" kind of defensive line than what the Mountaineers typically face.

"I think a lot of these ACC schools, like when we played Florida State (in the 2010 Gator Bowl), they kind of compare to this D-line: athletic, taller, longer type guys with long arms," Barclay said.

"Obviously it's the same, their motors and everything. But it's different in what they look like, how they play. They're skinner, athletic guys, but still powerful."

So how do the Tigers compare to the LSU defensive line?

"They're just as big, just as fast, every bit as strong," Madsen said. "We've got to come out, do our jobs, and finish."

One reporter quickly noted Madsen didn't say Clemson's defensive front was actually as good as LSU's. Madsen laughed.

"LSU, they're the top right now," he said.

But the ACC champion Tigers are certainly no slouch.

And for that reason, WVU's offensive linemen feel a strong desire to finish their season strong in the Orange Bowl. Madsen acknowledged, in a reporter's parlance, that he is "really jacked" about the chance to face Clemson.

Part of that has to do with the opposition. And then there is the fact that the redshirt junior was academically ineligible for last year's Champs Sports Bowl and missed out on the chance to finish his season.

"I literally couldn't even watch the game," Madsen said. "I watched the first series and was kind of like, ‘I let my team down. I let everyone down.' I had to step it up, and now we're here ... I can't wait. There's a big chip on my shoulder and I can't wait to prove myself, let people know that I'm here to stay."

For different reasons, the same could be said about the rest of West Virginia's offensive line as well.

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