By Cam Huffman
The way it began, it appeared as though 2012 was going to be the year of the Mountaineer.
Just four days into the new year, a 9-3 West Virginia football team, which won the Big East championship in its first year under head coach Dana Holgorsen, put on a show against a 10-3 Clemson club that was the champion of the ACC and a 3 1/2-point favorite in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Trailing 17-14 after the opening quarter, WVU’s offense exploded.
The Mountaineers scored 35 points in the second quarter alone — one of the touchdowns coming on a 99-yard Darwin Cook fumble return. And ahead 49-29 at the half, WVU didn’t put on the breaks.
The Mountaineers ended the game with 70 points and partied into the Miami night after a 70-33 victory that gave WVU its third BCS bowl victory in seven seasons.
In the process, the first team Holgorsen ever led as the head coach rewrote the record books.
The 70 points were the most ever scored in a bowl game, as were the 35 in the second quarter and the 49 in the opening half.
Quarterback Geno Smith’s six passing touchdowns tied Chuck Long’s record from the 1984 Freedom Bowl, and his seven total — he rushed for another — tied another record.
Tavon Austin got into the mix with four touchdown receptions, becoming just the fourth player all-time to post such a number in a bowl game.
“Our guys felt like they weren’t getting much credit and they wanted to make a statement in this game,” said Holgorsen after the contest. “Clemson is a good team, but we got the momentum and it made us tough to catch. The victory caps a great season and helps us lay the groundwork for the future..”
The celebration lasted for months. Billboards were erected in Morgantown that read, “70, It’s not just our speed limit,” complete with an orange and a Flying WV, and South Carolina fans spent the offseason peppering the rival Tigers with jokes about WVU’s performance.
Orange Bowl hats, T-shirts and videos flew off the shelves, and Holgorsen turned that momentum into an offseason contract extension, complete with a raise.
“When the University commits what it has to me and vice versa, it is a positive,” said Holgorsen. “Assistant coaches and players will view this as stability, and they are going to want to be here. It is going to help in recruiting, ticket sales and all of the rest.”
So did the other big news of 2012 for the WVU football program, the school’s move to the Big 12 Conference.
On July 1, WVU and TCU became the newest members of the league as the Mountaineers left behind the unstable Big East and moved into a league with traditional powers like Texas and Oklahoma.
“There are metrics like ticket sales and in football’s case, season ticket renewals, which are off the charts now,” said WVU athletic director Oliver Luck at the time of the move. “There is a lot of excitement right now. It is going to be a lot of fun and challenging, no question about it.
“There are all sorts of different indicators, but our coaches are very excited. They all seem to have an extra spring in their step, no matter what sport it is, because it is a new challenge.”
While the July 1 ceremonies, and WVU’s agreement to pay the Big East $20 million to leave, made the move official, it didn’t really become a reality until the Mountaineers played their first Big 12 football game against Baylor on Sept. 29. It was certainly a memorable start to a new era of WVU athletics.
In front of a crowd of 60,012 that striped the stadium with gold and blue and listened as Trace Adkins performed the national anthem, the Mountaineers and the Bears put on a show that previously had only been reserved for video games as WVU scored 70 again.
This time, the Mountaineers needed every one of those points as they held off Baylor for a 70-63 win that drew major national attention.
Smith threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns, five of them to Stedman Bailey, who had 13 catches for 303 yards. Baylor quarterback Nick Florence, meanwhile, threw for 581 yards and five scores as the teams combined for 1,507 yards of offense. There were 19 total touchdowns, which equaled an FBS record.
It was clear after that memorable Morgantown Saturday, that WVU had officially entered a whole new world in athletics.
“You witnessed the same thing I did,” Holgorsen told reporters after the game. “I told everybody it was going to be different.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.