By Cam Huffman
The last time West Virginia and Oklahoma met on the football field, the Mountaineers turned one of the program’s darkest moments into one of its best.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen is hoping history will repeat itself today when the No. 13 Sooners (7-2, 5-1 Big 12) make their first-ever visit to Milan Puskar Stadium to take on his Mountaineers (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) in a 7 p.m. showdown that will air live on FOX.
That last meeting came on Jan. 2, 2008, in Glendale, Ariz., at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Big East champion WVU was a decided underdog in that contest, and fans were hurting after the Mountaineers fell 13-9 to a sub-.500 Pitt team in the regular season finale. That loss kept WVU out of the BCS title game, and days later head coach Rich Rodriguez — a Mountain State native and a former WVU defensive back — poured salt in that wound when he left his alma mater to become the head coach at Michigan.
The Mountaineer program, which was on top of the world a couple weeks earlier, was down in the dumps, and analysts everywhere were picking the Big 12 champion Sooners to win in a blowout.
From the moment WVU’s players walked out of the tunnel holding hands, with interim head coach Bill Stewart leading the way, it was clear that wasn’t going to be the case.
The Mountaineers jumped out to a 13-3 lead, led 20-6 at halftime and, after Oklahoma pulled within five points in the second half, ran away late to win 48-28 behind the play of quarterback Pat White, running back Noel Devine and fullback Owen Schmitt.
After the game — as the Pride of West Virginia played “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and Schmitt teared up like a baseball fan watching “Field of Dreams” while talking to the FOX television crew about his love for the state and the program — it was clear that the Mountaineers were once again on top.
The current state of the WVU football program feels ironically similar to the days leading up to that last clash with OU. This time, WVU didn’t lose its opportunity for a national title with one bad night in Morgantown, but instead came crashing down from a 5-0 start and a No. 5 national ranking with a four-game losing skid.
Holgorsen isn’t planning a nighttime escape for The Big House, but he is being questioned about what’s happened to his once-unstoppable offense and why players like Travares Copeland and Ivan McCartney have left the team.
As it was more than four years ago in the desert, WVU is desperate for a big win.
“They’re a great team, and it could really turn our season around if we get a win against a top team in Morgantown and boost the morale of the team,” said junior linebacker Doug Rigg of the matchup with the Sooners. “Not many people on this team have gone through a four-game losing streak. Just getting a win, especially against a great team, will help our confidence a lot and propel us to win these last games of the season.”
Holgorsen even brought White, a WVU legend, to speak to his team this week and participate in pregame activities, hoping to find a little of that Fiesta Bowl magic.
WVU, which has a trip to Iowa State on Nov. 23 and a home game with Kansas on Dec. 1, needs at least one more win to become bowl eligible and could greatly improve its postseason location by winning out.
But Oklahoma has its own goals in mind, particularly trying to stay in the race for a Big 12 title, should Kansas State stumble, and if not, keep alive the hope for an at-large BCS bowl bid.
The current OU players weren’t on the team when the Sooners dropped the Fiesta Bowl in 2008, but they’ve heard the stories, particularly from head coach Bob Stoops, who was the Sooner coach that night, and they’re not planning on letting it happen again.
“They burn couches if they win, so we’re going to see,” said OU defensive lineman Casey Walker. “We’re going to try not to let them burn a couch (this weekend).
“I think that’s kind of funny and ironic. I’ve never heard of that. I’ve heard of bringing down the goal post or rushing the field, but burning a couch? If they’ve got the money to buy a couch every week, then more power to them.”
If it meant a win tonight, Holgorsen would probably gladly make the trip to the furniture store to replace the charred sofas.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH