The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 13, 2012

WVU-OU still an attractive matchup

When the Big 12 football schedule was released in February, fans, both in Morgantown and Norman, Okla., got out the red pen and circled Nov. 17 on their calendars. Work schedules were changed, vacations were moved and hotels were booked so that fans could be at Mountaineer Field when Oklahoma came to visit for the first time.

It was supposed to be one of college football’s biggest games of the year. West Virginia, fresh off an Orange Bowl victory over ACC champion Clemson, was ready to make its debut in its new conference, and Oklahoma, always the bully on the Big 12 block, was the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Mountaineers making a huge splash in their first year, or so most observers thought.

The anticipation for the game only grew larger when the preaseason polls were released. OU, which finished 10-3 and won the Insight Bowl in 2011, was picked to win the Big 12, but the Mountaineers were picked second and garnered some first place votes. Both were among the top 15 nationally, and many WVU fans were already thinking up sign ideas, confident that ESPN GameDay would be making the trip to Morgantown for the second time in as many seasons.

On Oct. 7, the matchup was shaping up as planned. Oklahoma had taken a little shine off the game by losing to Kansas State, but the Sooners were still 3-1 and ranked No. 10 in the USA Today Poll. WVU, fresh off a win over the team many thought would be the other big conference contender, Texas, was 5-0 and up to No. 4 in the USA Today Poll. The WVU-OU showdown, it appeared, would have not just conference, but also national title implications.

Game week has finally arrived. The Mountaineers and the Sooners will meet in Morgantown Saturday at 7 p.m., in a game to be televised live on FOX, but ESPN’s GameDay won’t be setting up shop behind the Mountainlair. In fact, from a national perspective, this weekend’s game isn’t even on the radar.

WVU simply didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. After that incredible 5-0 start, the Mountaineers have lost four straight to Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma State. The Sooners (7-2), No. 12 in the latest BCS Standings, are still shooting for the Fiesta Bowl, but the unranked Mountaineers (5-4) are simply searching for one more win to become bowl eligible. At this point, any bowl will do.

It’s certainly not the national showdown that most expected, but WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said during Monday’s Big 12 conference call that he still expects plenty of interest, and support, from the Mountaineer fans.

“I think people are pretty excited about it,” he said. “I mean, they’ve had it circled for a while, just because OU’s such a storied program over the past 100 years. They have tremendous history (seven national championships, 43 conference titles, five Heisman Trophy winners) that they’ve been able to accomplish with championships and all that, so I think a lot of people are going to want to come in and watch the game.”

There’s also some past history that adds to the drama. The Mountaineers and Sooners have met four times in the past, with the all-time series tied 2-2. But WVU has won the last two, both major shocks to the Sooner Nation.

On Sept. 11, 1982, Don Nehlen’s WVU squad made the trip to Owen Field at Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., as a major underdog against No. 9 OU. But after falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter, the Mountaineers came storming back.

WVU scored 20 unanswered points in the second quarter to take a 6-point lead into the locker room. Oklahoma tied it up by the end of the third quarter, but WVU dominated the final minutes to secure a 41-27 victory that sent 75,008 Sooner fans home unhappy.

Quarterback Jeff Hostetler was the hero of that game for the Mountaineers, completing 17 of 37 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns.

Most Sooner fans had forgotten about that game by the time the teams met again in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, but the setup seemed all too familiar to the Mountaineer faithful.

After WVU had blown its opportunity to play for a BCS Championship by losing the regular season finale to rival Pitt — an unranked Panther team — and then watched as its head coach, Rich Rodriguez, bolted for Michigan, most didn’t give the Mountaineers a chance.

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, in fact, was so insulted by the matchup with the Big East champion that he tried to arrange a deal to have his team meet up with Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, instead. That didn’t work, and the Big 12 champion Sooners (11-2) were installed as a heavy favorite against the Mountaineers, coached by interim head coach Bill Stewart. ESPN analyst Lee Corso predicted the Mountaineers to lose by “at least three touchdowns,” and he wasn’t alone.

Like the 1982 game, though, nothing went as planned for OU.

An inspired WVU squad jumped out to a 13-3 lead, setting the tone for the game, and by halftime it led 20-6.

The Sooners stormed back, pulling as close as 20-15, but WVU scored 21 of the next 27 points to go ahead 41-21 and held on to win 48-28.

Owen Schmitt, who earned the nickname “Runaway Beer Truck” in the game, rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown on three carries. In total, WVU rushed for 349 yards, led by quarterback Pat White, who threw for 176 yards and rushed for 150 more on his way to his second BCS victory.

Morgantown partied and Schmitt shed tears after one of the biggest wins in school history.

For the third straight game against OU, WVU will be a decided underdog on Saturday when the Sooners visit Mountaineer Field for the first time, but WVU should again be motivated.

The Mountaineers need another win to lock down a bowl spot, and defeating a team like Oklahoma would help to bandage some of the wounds they’ve picked up from an angry Big 12 the last few weeks.

“That’s kind of your goal every week, to get your guys ready to play, excited to play,” said Holgorsen. “You start to lean on some of your seniors at this point to finish the year strong. We’re still fighting for the same thing that we were a week ago, which is to try to get better each week, to win the game, to improve our bowl status. We have to figure out why we play this game we love.

“It’s a challenge each week. When you start getting a couple losses on top of each other, then that challenge becomes a little bit greater.”

Holgorsen knows his team will be greatly challenged physically, but he said mentally it should be prepared to play.

“I think we’re fine,” he said of his team’s mental state after a collapse reminiscent of the 2011 Boston Red Sox. “We’re not happy but still motivated. Our approach last week was good. Our effort last week was good. I expect it to be the same this week, and it better be. We’ve got a good top 10 team coming to Morgantown. It’s going to be on national TV and we’ve got to play good.”

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A few days after announcing that freshman wide receiver Tavares Copeland had left the team for “personal reasons,” Holgorsen made the same announcement about another receiver, Ivan McCartney, on Monday. The 6-foot-2 junior, who played with Geno Smith at Miramar High School, had 49 catches for 583 yards and three touchdowns last year but had just nine grabs for 112 yards this season.

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WVU wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were both on the list of 10 finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, presented annually to college football’s most outstanding receiver.

The other finalists were Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), Austin Franklin (New Mexico State), Cobi Hamilton (Arkansas), Austin Hill (Arizona), Deandre Hopkins (Clemson), Marqise Lee (Southern Cal), Quinton Patton (Louisiana Tech) and Terrance Williams (Baylor).

Austin, a senior, has caught a team-high 96 passes for 968 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Bailey, a junior, has 75 grabs for 1,055 yards and 16 touchdowns.

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