It was supposed to be an afternoon of celebration on Morgantown. The Mountaineers, led by senior quarterback Rasheed Marshall, had bounced back from an early season non-conference loss to Virginia Tech with four straight Big East victories to set up a showdown with Tom O'Brien's Boston College Eagles.
The men from Chestnut Hill had not won in Morgantown since 1990, and Mountaineer fans saw no way that the Eagles could buck the trend on their way out the door to the ACC. The task for West Virginia was simple: win, and go to the BCS. Lose, and risk losing out on what seemed to be a golden opportunity for Rich Rodriguez's program to establish itself as the beast of the new Big East.
As it turned out, the afternoon was a disaster for West Virginia from the very beginning. The Eagles didn't light up the scoreboard with yards, but hurt the Mountaineers on the part of the stat sheet where it matters the most: points. Whether it was the playmaking of quarterback Paul Peterson, the defensive effort put forth by Mathias Kiawanuka, or the game-changing plays on special teams (including two touchdown returns), the Eagles simply could do no wrong. When the game mercifully ended for the home team, what was left of a sellout crowd sat in stunned silence as what had started out as a coronation turned into a BC highlight film right before their very eyes.
"I remember them scoring touchdowns, returning punts," said senior defensive lineman Keilen Dykes, a freshman on that Mountaineer squad. "We didn't play well in all three phases, and they just beat us."
The Mountaineers would go on to lose their season finale against Pitt, a loss that would turn out to be just as costly in the Big East title race as the effort against BC, since the Eagles ended up laying a predictable egg after defeating West Virginia (some things never change, no matter what conference you're in). The Mountaineers, Eagles, Panthers, and Syracuse ended up splitting the conference title, with Pitt somehow backing its way into the conference's BCS appearance against Urban Meyer and Utah in the Fiesta Bowl
This weekend, Dykes and his fellow seniors face a similar challenge to the one they faced on that cold November day, right down to the geographical location of their opponent. This time, however, there might be even more at stake than that game in 2004. Despite an early season loss to South Florida, the Mountaineers are right in the thick of the chase for the BCS title.
First and foremost, though, a win over Connecticut would all but sew up West Virginia's fourth Big East crown in five seasons. Having seen the program grow by leaps and bounds in the time since that 2004 season, the veterans of the roster say that the difference is as stark as night and day.
"These are two totally different teams," said Dykes. "That team was totally different from the team we have now. I think this team knows what we've got to do, and is willing to do what we have to do to finish the season, and finish the job. This team knows what is ahead of us."
"This year, I feel like the guys are a little more focused on the situation we have," added senior safety Eric Wicks, who played in that 2004 game as a sophomore competing in his first season of eligibility. "They don't want to lose. They know the situation, and they want to win. They won't let themselves lose. We're working harder, and harder, and harder each week."
Play by play. Week by week. This is the mantra preached by Rodriguez, adopted by his team's Apostles, and carried out from the top of the roster to the bottom.
"We've been through so much, that it seems like we've been through too much to come up short," summed up senior cornerback Larry Williams. "UConn is a great team, and we're not sleeping on them. We're going to work hard, take it play by play, and see what happens on Saturday."