Friday, August 23, 2013

8 Days Away from Mountaineer Football

We all can remember a play that stands out in our mind over the years. It is a moment that is engraved in your mind. It is an experience you share with your friends and will share with your children. Since we are 8 days away from kickoff, I will rank the 8 Plays That Shaped Mountaineer Football in the BCS Era. As you are reading them, think back to where you were and what you were doing.This list was incredibly hard to make. I didn't know whether to include negative plays like Michael Vick's scramble in '99, the Miracle in Morgantown, or Kellen Winslow Jr. shoving a dagger into my soul with a 4th and 13 catch that moved the chains with 1:05 on the clock. Also, the game that shall not be mentioned had a few plays that left me too shocked to cry. I didn't know which plays to leave out because it's like ranking your favorite offspring. Anyway, I'm digressing again. On to the list.

 8 Plays That Shaped Mountaineer Football in the BCS Era

8. Pat White's 50-yard scamper
In weeks prior, West Virginia had lost all National Championship hopes when they lost to South Florida in Tampa. The spotlight was off of the Mountaineers up until this game. We had dismantled Syracuse, Mississippi State, and Rutgers and were ranked #6 coming into the Thursday night rivalry game. WVU got out to a large lead early. Pat White proceeded to fumble WVU back into a tie game with 1:35 remaining in the 4th quarter. But, in typical Pat White fashion, he made up for it.  

What did it mean: The Mountaineers won the game 38-31, making it back into the top 5 with wins over Cincinnati and UConn. West Virginia had its first ever #1 ranking ever, which is pretty significant. Once again, WVU was back in the National Championship picture, which is obviously great for recruiting. Most of us were there watching it live. Current players on the team watched it on ESPN and fell in love with the Pat White/Steve Slaton combo that will never be forgotten in College Football. 

7. Tron Martinez's unfortunate fumble :(
Marshall has never beaten WVU (and never will) in football, but they came awfully close on September 10. 2010. It was a warm night in Morgantown and all of my friends gathered to watch the game excited to see our #23 Mountaineers destroy the Herd. The first 51 minutes were pretty sobering, that's for sure. But in typical Marshall fashion, up 21-6 inside WVU's 10 yard line, they choked. It would have been the greatest win in Marshall's history, but a guy named "Tron" shouldn't be expected to hold on to a steering wheel, let alone a football in front of a national audience. He fumbled and Geno Smith led an unbelievable comeback that crushed all of the souls in Huntington that night. WVU won 24-21 in overtime. Yes I watched the rest of that youtube video.

What did it mean: I think the pure fact that we avoided losing to Marshall is good enough. Morgantown was ablaze, as all of our students celebrated an improbable victory. WVU stayed in the rankings, which later produced a big matchup in Baton Rouge against LSU. What it really did was show Mountaineer fans the future of the program. It gave us promise for years to come. Geno Smith was an outstanding leader that night and had a great career. Stedman Bailey had a couple of clutch 4th quarter grabs, per usual. Tavon Austin had a few catches and would eventually become a first round draft pick. I still love you Tay-Tay.

6. "Owen a runaway beer truck down the sidelines!"
Out of all of the plays on the list, this is probably my favorite. Owen was such a good Mountaineer and a great character that fans around the country loved. After the Fiesta Bowl, Owen had a postgame interview with Fox  that we still love watching. I remember this hilljack Sooner fan and his idiot 8 year-old son were sitting in front of me talking smack the entire first quarter of the game. This was the first play that shut them up for good. It was one of many plays that the Fiesta Bowl produced that could have been on the list, including Pat White's numerous touchdown passes and Noel Devine's touchdown runs. WVU won the Fiesta Bowl 48-28 over the Oklahoma Sooners.

What did it mean: West Virginia was not expected to win, obviously. We were a long shot to even compete. Rich Rodriguez had left the program after choking away the biggest game in our history. What this game really proved was that WVU was a prominent program. Schools have great years and bad years. Winning this game meant three straight 11-win seasons for the Mountaineers and would give them a preseason top 10 ranking the following season. While this game wasn't the most important win, it was our program's finest hour in my opinion. All the negativity that followed us through December was overcome by Bill Stewart, Pat White, and Owen Schmitt's leadership. It gave us a speech that will be replayed for the rest of our lives. It gives us all chills and sometimes a tear. Rest in peace, Stew. 

5. Brian King's interception in Blacksburg
God, do I love this play. WVU went into the game 7-3 against the #12 Virginia Tech Hokies in 2002. If you were like me, you stayed up all night to watch this Wedneday night rivalry game and screamed your head off much like Tony Caridi and the MSN staff did on the call.  Earlier that year, we lost to #1 Miami, the eventual National Champions, in Morgantown in a relatively close game. Virginia Tech only needed a field goal to tie and they were in our red zone with plenty of time left. Brian Randle, the Hokies' quarterback, didn't need to make a stupid throw like that. But he did. The play is so great, because it was so unexpected. I remember sitting on the couch waiting to watch us lose. We won the game 21-18 and it created a matchup of two top 25 teams the following week when we played Pittsburgh at Heinz. 

What did it mean: Well, for starters, it was the first time we were ranked in quite a long time. You will have to fact check me on that one, but it produced a ton of excitement for the Mountaineer program. It was our first 9-win season since 1993. It got the Mountaineers out of the rather boring pit they had sat a decade in. We would eventually get crushed in the Continental Tire Bowl by Virginia, but it was Rich Rodriguez's first prominent victory as head coach. It also started a streak of 11 straight bowl game appearances by the Mountaineers.

4. Quincy Wilson's "unbelievable run"
I know, I know. How can you possibly rank the greatest run in our history at #4? Simply put, we lost the game. That is not saying the play was insignificant, because it still made it into the top 4. As mentioned earlier, Kellen Winslow Jr. shoved a hot knife into my heart that night. WVU lost 22-20 in what is still the most painful defeat I have witnessed in my life. Sure, the "game that will not be spoken of" was worse but not as painful. The Pitt game left me in shock and disbelief. The Miami game made me want to off my 12 year old self in the back alley of Casa. I cried a thousand cries and didn't sleep for a week. Anyway, Quincy ran around and through future NFL starters in a truly unbelievable display of heart and determination. I still watch the play to this day and wonder to myself, "How the hell did he do that?" What is even more mind-boggling is that Rich Rod called a half back screen on 3rd-and-long. 

What did it mean: It showed that WVU was no longer a "gimme" win. We were no longer that cellar dweller that would be a cake-walk for Miami or anyone. After the game we were 1-4, but it felt like we were 11-0. The Mountaineers would rattle off a 7 game winning streak and win a share of the Big East Championship, which was pretty cool. "The Run" gave us some national publicity. To be fair, it is definitely the best overall play in Mountaineer history. There are others that were more significant, but not as impressive. It didn't shape our program, however, as much as these final 3.

3. Adam Bednarik's Foot Sprain
I'm sorry Adam, but your injury was one of the best things to happen to Mountaineer football. That is a distasteful statement, but it's true. I liked Bednarik, don't get me wrong. He was a decent quarterback and used to truck through Syracuse defenders. In the 4th quarter of WVU-Louisville in 2005, Adam Bednarik went down with a foot injury that would give Pat White the permanent reigns to the Mountaineer football team. The first half of the season, both players split time at quarterback (with Bednarik starting and getting most of the reps). Pat White, as noted, took over. It was the most amazing comeback in recent WVU history. Did you leave early? I'll be honest. I couldn't or I probably would have. I was a young buck and was outside the stadium passing football with my friends. When their fathers left, I was left alone. So, naturally, I went back into the game. I kid you not, I remember sitting back in my seat with 9 minutes left in the game. I remember everyone around me saying that Bednarik looked to be hurt. Pat White came in, and we had nothing to lose. We got to see the redshirt freshman from Alabama give us a taste of the future. No one expected us to come back and win, though--especially not 46-44 in triple overtime. 

What did it mean: Shit, it meant everything. We went 10-1 that year and won the Sugar bowl. Pat White won multiple Big East Offensive Player of the Year awards, and set school, Big East, and national records. The golden age of Mountaineer football was created by Adam's foot sprain. Crazy to think, huh?

2. Steve Slaton's first 52 yard touchdown run
If you are a true Mountaineer fan, you can probably recite Brad Nessler's call pretty accurately. West Virginia was 10-1 and ranked #11. We were matched up against #7 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and were set to play the game in the Georgia Dome, the Bulldogs' backyard. I remember the days leading up to the game creating a weird set of emotions for me. It was a combination of Christmas morning and your last meal before execution. It was the biggest game I had ever witnessed in my life. The media told us we had no shot, and I sort of believed them. The build-up to the game was crippling. My nerves were getting the best of me and my heart was pounding hours before. We forced a punt to start out the game, which was great. Still, Mountaineer fans had no idea what to expect. Our offense was actually moving the ball well, but a holding penalty halted us. 2nd and 20...our own 48 yard line...draw play to Slaton. We would eventually hold a 28-0 lead in the second quarter. We literally could not be stopped. My family and I were pretty speechless. Somehow, they came back. The lead was 38-35. Now we had to punt. No way we hold on for the victory.

1. Phil Brady's fake punt
"And now they're gonna fake it!" Yes. YES. No one expected it. It was the ballsiest call I've ever seen. It was a display of coaching brilliance. 

What did it mean: That run basically meant that WVU was not screwing around. We didn't show up to enjoy what Atlanta had to offer. We weren't happy just being there. We came to win. The first Steve Slaton touchdown eased the nerves and helped build a 28-0 lead. Slaton would later have another 52 yard run that I thought, at the time, closed out the game. We won our first of three BCS games. The other 2 were definitely a product of this first one. West Virginia was a pretty big afterthought. Georgia had to play Big East Champion West Virginia? Who is there quarterback? Who is their running back? I've never heard of them. They're both freshman? Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, and Darius Reynaud built off this monumental victory and escalated the program to levels we hadn't seen in a long time. The Mountaineers were on magazine covers and on the front page of ESPN. All of this  was in light of the devastating Sago Mine Disaster  that affected the entire state of West Virginia. iThe Sugar Bowl win made West Virginia University Football relevant, and it wouldn't have happened without Phil Brady's fake punt.

Honorable mention: Grant Wiley's goal line stop vs. Virginia Tech, Chris Henry's overtime touchdown catch against Maryland, Rasheed Marshall to Travis Garvin to upset Virginia Tech, Bitancurt's field goals against Pitt and USF, Pat White's touchdown run at South Florida in 2005, Wes Ours diving touchdown in Don Nehlen's last game, and John Pennington's acrobatics against Pitt.

If you read through all of this, thank you and I hope you enjoyed it. There are probably a few spelling errors, but get over it. If you think one missed the cut, leave a comment or shoot me an email.