"I'm just glad for our fans," Rodriguez said. "I think that too much is made of past Gator Bowl wins and losses. But for our fans, it's nice to be able to enjoy both the week and the game for once. There will be some Mountaineers celebrating tonight."
And on into the postseason as West Virginia, playing in its record fifth consecutive bowl game – and fourth straight traditional New Year's Day Bowl – won two consecutive postseason games for the first time since 1983-84, when it won the Hall of Fame and Bluebonnet Bowls. None were nearly this overdue, however, especially after WVU lost twice in three years in blowouts. This game looked to be more of the same when Georgia Tech had more than doubled up the Mountaineers, leading 35-17 after – of all things – an onside kick and score to begin the second half in a game WVU was favored to win by double digits.
Tech had seemingly found the soft underbelly of a shockingly porous pass defense that was beaten for three scores. The Yellow Jackets tallied just one touchdown in their last two games under mobile senior quarterback Reggie Ball – ruled academically ineligible in late December – but seemed to elevate their execution and efficiency under freshman Taylor Bennett, a pocket passer who managed to pick apart WVU's odd stack defense. He completed his first eight passes of the game, racking up 187 yards and two scores before adding another to James Johnson to put Georgia Tech ahead 28-17 at the half.
And it wasn't just Bennett. All-ACC tailback Tashard Choice ran for 102 yards and one touchdown to give the Yellow Jackets much needed balance. His ability to run between the tackles and lessen pressure on a frosh signal caller allowed both a more controlled passing game and the Tech coaching staff to utilize All-American Calvin Johnson and James Johnson on the outside. But all the early theatrics, the juggling grabs by Johnson, the solid quarterbacking from Bennett, and the ripping running game, merely setup the canvas for White and the Mountaineers.
The first of 21 unanswered points came via a 57-yard scoring pass to Tito Gonzales for his first career touchdown. That came via a freeze play on which Gonzales beat a defensive backfield that had sucked up in anticipation of stopping White. On the ensuing series, West Virginia's defense, which had allowed 335 yards of total offense by the break, got its first three and out. The offense, minus tailback Steve Slaton who was ineffective with a deep thigh bruise, answered in just even plays. It mixed a misdirection to Darius Reynaud for 20 yards with two 14-yard completions to wideout Brandon Myles, the latter of which went for a score. Tally: 35-24, Tech.
"The quickest way to get beat," Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey said, "is to relax. Anybody who has watched these guys knows that you can't relax."
West Virginia did earlier, when it was burnt on an onside kick. Tech returned the favor when placekicker Pat McAfee drove a lined kick off Tech up man Tony Clark. WVU linebacker Barry Wright dove into the bouncing ball and began a mass pileup. Bandit John Holmes recovered the ball at the 35, and Tech was tagged with an unsportsmanlike penalty call that moved the ball to the edge of the red zone. White ran in from 15 yards out two plays later and West Virginia – from down 35-17 – had rallied with three consecutive touchdowns in less than six minutes to go ahead 38-35 with 5:57 left in the third quarter. It was the same total by which WVU had beaten Georgia exactly one year ago in the Sugar Bowl.
"He willed us to victory," Rodriguez said of his quarterback, which battled an ankle sprain throughout bowl practice after not playing in the season finale' against Rutgers.. "He is one of the best quarterbacks in college football. He has a bad neck, he had a swollen shoulder. I know what a competitor he is. When I ask him if he is ok and he hesitates, I know it is bad."
White hobbled off the field after several series, but still managed to rush for 145 yards on 22 carries (6.6 yards per carry) for one touchdown and throw for 131 yards and two scores on nine of 15 passes. His final score, which put West Virginia ahead for the first time since it went up 7-0 with 10 minutes left in the first quarter, made the game the highest scoring in the 61-year history of the Gator Bowl. It eclipsed the 68 points scored by Tennessee and Virginia Tech on Dec. 30, 1994 at the University of Florida in a 22-point Volunteer win.
"The line set us up, and I knocked them down," White said. "I just wanted to play. I get angry when I can't play. We geared it up to finish it."
The offensive burst seemed to jumpstart the defense, which began to better contain Choice. The back was limited on two carries on the next series and, when WVU covered both Johnsons and then sacked Bennett, Tech faced a fourth and 13 from near midfield. It punted, and West Virginia again had possession and momentum at its own 20. From there, the game dissolved into a series of defensive stands for West Virginia. The Yellow Jackets did threaten twice more, once when it missed a 54-yard field goal and once when free safety Quinton Andrews intercepted Bennett at the two-yard line. The freshman finished with 326 yards passing on a 19 of 29 effort and three scores. Choice had 169 yards and Calvin Johnson caught nine passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns, a career record for yardage.
West Virginia ended the game with a 10-play, 60-yard drive that used up all three Tech timeouts and the final 5:02 on the clock in a quarter in which it held the ball 10:55. The game ended when White scrambled for the final six seconds and nearly scored. Of the 10 plays, eight were White carries. The other two went to fullback Owen Schmitt, who played at 95 percent but said, like all members of WVU's backfield, was beat up with leg and back injuries. He ran for a career-high 109 yards and two touchdowns. His 52-yard rush on the first play of the game was a season long. He had a season-best 82 yards in the first half.
"I saw some courageous performances," Rodriguez said. "Pat and Owen took over for us."
The 928 yards of total offense by both teams combined were the most in Gator Bowl history, eclipsing the 715 set by Michigan and Ole Miss in 1991. It was also the most plays by both teams (121, old record of 88, set three times), and the most first downs by both teams (40, old record of 36 by Oklahoma and Virginia in 1991). Tech's 35 points were the most for a losing team in the bowl's history. It was also the most touchdowns by both teams (10, old record seven, also set in 1991).
WVU's defense did not allow a point after the first drive of the second half. That resembled the Pitt game, when the Mountaineers shutout the Panthers in a blowout win.
"It's a lot better going out with a win," said senior captain Jay Henry, who has been a part of two other Gator Bowl losses. "It's amazing to see how far our program has come, but it has been because of hard work. We came out with more energy and didn't change a lot. It was a matter of execution."