By Dave Morrison
Register-Herald Sports Writer
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. —
It might be that one of the two elite quarterbacks will have a major say in who wins the game.
It could turn on which team’s outstanding receivers come up with the big play at the right time.
But likely, tonight’s 2012 Orange Bowl matchup between Big East champion and No. 23-ranked West Virginia (9-3) and ACC champ, No. 14 Clemson (10-3), will turn on a defensive or special teams play.
The game will be played at Sun Life Stadium in Miami and kicks off at 8:30 p.m. ESPN will televise nationally beginning at 8 p.m.
While offenses dominated the BCS’s Rose and Fiesta Bowls Monday, it was a special teams or a defensive play that turned the tide.
“I would anticipate that being the case (tonight),” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said Tuesday morning during the final press conference ahead of tonight’s game. “There was a lot of offense in that (Fiesta Bowl) game and a lot of guys making plays. It’s a three-sided game, and that’s the one thing that we learned about a month and a half ago when we lost to Louisville.”
It would also be the turning point as WVU rallied to win three close games down the stretch to gain a three-way tie for the Big East title and earn its way to the conference’s BCS bid.
“Our team came together,” said Holgorsen, “and on all three sides of the ball we figured out that if all three sides of the ball don’t play together and pick each other up, to try to be fighting for the same goal, then you’re probably not going to win very many games.
“That’s the one thing we did over the course of the last three games was play together.”
A trip to, ironically, South Florida, last month illustrated that point. The Mountaineers won not because of an offensive onslaught, but because they played well in all three phases.
“In that South Florida game we scored a defensive touchdown, we made a field goal to win the game and we had a drive offensively at the end of the game to get us down there in a position to be successful,” Holgorsen said.
“It takes all three sides. In a game of this magnitude, on this stage, it’s going to take all three sides.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agreed with Holgorsen’s assessment.
“Well, I always tell our guys, when two pretty even teams are playing, it’s five or six plays that really determine the outcome of the game,” Swinney said. “We try to take the mentality of just play every play like it’s a one-play game. Win that play and then go to the next one. That’s the mentality you really have to have because you just don’t know when the play is coming.
“It’s usually four, five, six plays that changes momentum, creates opportunity and so forth.”
No doubt, there are plenty of playmakers on each team, capable of putting up big numbers.
And Holgorsen has taken note of what Clemson has and what his defense must deal with tonight.
“Tajh Boyd is a heck of a quarterback, and Sammy Watkins is a heck of a receiver, and their running back (Andre Ellington) is a 1,000-yard guy,” Holgorsen said. “They’ve got guys offensively that are players. Shoot, that’s going to be a challenge for us defensively to stop that, but part of the challenge that exists in a football game of this magnitude is you’re going to play a quality opponent.”
Nobody has been bigger than Watkins, the Clemson freshman who has 77 receptions for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is also a first-team AP All-American all-purpose player selection.
Boyd, who had originally committed to West Virginia in 2008, has been equally impressive, completing 274 of 453 passes for 3,578 yards and 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Ellington, a junior, finished fourth in the ACC, rushing for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns.
West Virginia counters with quarterback Geno Smith and 1,000-yard receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.
“We’ve got to be able to affect the quarterback, and the way you do that, one way is through coverage,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to be really disciplined with your coverage. People got to be where they’re supposed to be. You’ve got to change it up. If you just do one thing, they’re going to lock in on you pretty quick. They’ve got answers.
“If we can affect their quarterback and disrupt the rhythm and the passing game, get him on the ground and get after the receivers outside, then we’ve got a chance if we’ll take care of the ball and do the things we do on the other side.”
Smith has completed 314 of 483 passes for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
Austin, a third-team AP All-American, has 89 catches for 1,063 yards and four touchdowns and Bailey has 67 for 1,197 and 11 touchdowns.
West Virginia will be without starting tailback Dustin Garrison. The freshman tore his ACL during the Mountaineers’ first practice in Miami. Garrison’s 742 yards were better than half the Mountaineers’ season rushing total of 1,412 yards.
Junior Shawne Alston (77-354-10) will start in his place and be backed by freshman Andrew Buie (38-127-1).