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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Instant Analysis

Instant Analysis
Sugar Bowl - West Virginia 38 ... Georgia 35

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By Matthew Zemek

On Wednesday, USC and Texas will play a game that will have a very large impact on the sport of college football. But while America was waiting for the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl snuck up on everyone... everyone but the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Big East Conference, that is. What happened in this one football game will reverberate throughout college football for a good long time to come.

Epic works of literature are written about games such as the romantic clash for the national title in Pasadena, but West Virginia's dominating 38-35 win over Georgia (it has to be considered one of the most dominating three-point games in the history of the sport of football at any level) might have more real-world impact on the college football industry when the smoke finally clears. And if that whopping reality isn't big enough for you, consider this: the Mountaineers' gigantic victory completes one of the most remarkable seasons in college football's 137-year history.

That is not an exaggeration, ladies and gentlemen. Before assessing how this game will change college football, let's try to put this amazing West Virginia season into perspective. The best place to start is Syracuse, N.Y., on an early Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend.

On that day in the Carrier Dome, West Virginia's offense committed six turnovers while scoring only six legitimate points (the defense either scored or set up the other nine points in a 15-7 WVU win over the Orange). The 'Eers were 1-13 on third downs. And when you realize that Syracuse stayed bad throughout 2005, never getting off the deck in a dreary season under first-year coach Greg Robinson, it stands to reason that that game--at the time--hinted at a very difficult year for Rich Rodriguez' team. A few weeks later, this same team still hadn't progressed that much, beating lowly East Carolina at home by a mere five points, 20-15. What was holding this team back? Why did the future look so bleak? Why did Virginia Tech later march into Morgantown and whip the home folks by 17 points... the same Virginia Tech team that got pounded by Miami and Florida State, and which had to fight like the devil to barely beat Louisville in today's Gator Bowl?

To find the moment when West Virginia's ho-hum season became the stuff of Appalachian legend, you need to go to the fourth quarter of the 'Eers' Big East game of the year against Louisville, back on Oct. 15. Yes, that's right... the same day most of the country was riveted on USC and Notre Dame.

If you were fixated on the Trojans and the Irish, and you never bothered to investigate this West Virginia team (perhaps because you thought WVU had no chance whatsoever against an SEC champion playing in its own backyard), you need to realize just what happened two and a half months ago in Morgantown. With around 10 minutes left to go in the fourth quarter, WVU trailed Louisville 24-7. Rodriguez' offense was going absolutely nowhere, and without any passing game at all, the prospect of coming from 17 down to beat the high-flying Cards seemed incredibly remote. The stadium in Morgantown was eerily quiet, and there were several thousand empty seats in the joint. The Big East championship seemed to be headed for the Bluegrass country of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and as evidenced by the empty seats, plenty of West Virginians had already conceded the point, with understandable justification.

But then the miracle happened, and West Virginia rose from the dead to complete one of the great single-season rags-to-riches journeys in the history of college football.

The turning point? No. 1 quarterback Adam Bednarik--a second cousin of iron man "Concrete Charlie" Chuck Bednarik, one of football's greatest legends--lacked his famous relative's legendary endurance. He got banged up so badly that he had to leave the contest in the fourth quarter of that Louisville game.

Yes, that was the moment that changed West Virginia football forever. Why? Because from that moment on, a new man became the every-down starter under center in Morgantown: a man named Pat White. Yes, believe it or not, Rich Rodriguez--a brilliant coach and an astute football man (more on that in a bit)--nevertheless failed to give Pat White the keys to a slumbering Ferrari at the beginning of the season. It took an injury to put White in the driver's seat on a permanent basis.

Oh, but once White began to drive the sports car, it roared past the rest of the college football world.

It was White who, in those final 10 minutes against Louisville, teamed with Steve Slaton to give the Mountaineers more speed than any team not located in Austin or Los Angeles. It was White who led a comeback from that 17-point deficit to lift the 'Eers to a tie at the end of regulation, and ultimately to a 46-44, triple-overtime victory that won the Big East and secured WVU's berth in the Sugar Bowl in the first place. And once in the Sugar Bowl--the first one not played inside the Louisiana Superdome since the mid-1970s, just before the currently damaged structure first opened--it was White who put his stamp on this contest from start to finish. It's fitting that sugar is colored white, because this piece of Sugar was a White-out for 60 minutes. The same offense that could barely get out of its own way against Syracuse four months ago dropped nearly 400 rushing yards on the SEC champions. The same unit that scored six points in an ugly season-opener scored 38 on one of college football's world-class defenses. The same team that had no answers and no solutions at quarterback on Labor Day weekend had the combinations needed to embarrass, outclass, undress and humiliate an SEC power used to playing high-stakes, high-publicity games. West Virginia started this football season as an ugly duckling, but at the end, Rich Rodriguez' team became a beautiful swan. This game in Atlanta ended at roughly 12:45 a.m. local time, but the clock never truly struck midnight for an ascendant ballclub that is now a Sugar Bowl champion and, moreover, a top-flight national title contender for the 2006 season.

Think long and hard: how many times has a college football team ended a season with such enormously high stature after starting that same season in such a noticeably ugly and discouraging manner, and away from the media spotlight to boot? There haven't been resurrections this big since Jesus Christ did his thing less than 2,000 years ago (and that's only if you believe in the man, too... West Virginia's resurrection requires no belief or faith; it's merely a fact of life).

So that establishes the nature of this unreal season in Morgantown. Now, let's shift the focus to how this Sugar Bowl will radically change a number of things about the college football world.

Georgia's defense--which made a talented LSU team look quite silly a month ago in the same stadium; and no one would say LSU is slow, to be sure--had a bunch of veterans who, under the leadership of first-year coordinator Willie Martinez, figured to be savvy enough, fast enough, and physical enough to contain whatever White, Slaton, Coach Rodriguez, and anyone else from WVU managed to throw at them.

Instead, the Mountaineers blew them away with an astonishing display of five things: 1) speed; 2) more speed; 3) even more speed; 4) extraordinary shiftiness to complement all that speed; 5) an effective passing game from White that put UGA's defense on its heels to an even greater degree (if that was humanly possible).

West Virginia's display was so legitimately awesome--in the truest sense of that overused word--that Georgia defenders couldn't be blamed for missed tackles. After all, it's hard to officially credit a defender with a missed tackle when he whiffs by three or four yards. That's how badly Bulldog linemen... and linebackers... and safeties... and corners (and waterboys... and trainers) were failing to even breathe on the Mountaineers' ridiculously fast runners. This never really changed throughout the course of the game; the Dawgs got a few second-half stops only because of WVU penalties or more conservative, power-oriented play-calling by Rodriguez that played to UGA's strong points. From beginning to end, White and Slaton and every other white-shirted ballcarrier made UGA's celebrated defense look slow, stupid and unprepared.

So how will college football be radically changed as a result of this game? Let's count the ways:

First, any Big East bashing must necessarily stop. It's not even a matter of opinion or debate--West Virginia did the talking on the field with an authoritative performance. Moreover, the whole purpose of Big East bashing was not any kind of entrenched bias against the conference or its members. No, the Big East bashing--one needs to understand--was only the byproduct of a wish to see the best teams playing in the best games at the end of each season. After many lopsided losses by Syracuse in big bowl games in the mid- and late 1990s; after seeing only Miami and Virginia Tech stand atop the conference over the past several seasons (before their move to the ACC); and after seeing Pittsburgh get crushed by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl last year, when the Utes deserved to play Auburn or, for that matter, any team that would have given Urban Meyer's crew a more legitimate test in a showcase game, the outcry against the Big East reached a fever pitch, and with justification. Going into this season, no one wanted to have another equivalent of Pittsburgh stealing a bowl bid and creating another laugher. Safe to say, West Virginia has laid this Big East talk to rest with a win over an SEC power.

Speaking of the SEC, another thing this game will change about college football is the perception that the SEC has a monopoly on speed. If any SEC team (not just Georgia) has more speed than West Virginia, you must be talking about college basketball, because in big-time football, WVU owns the turbo-charged jet engines. Georgia defenders looked like New Year's confetti and party favors against White and Slaton in the Sugar Bowl: scattered across the field and motionless in a scene that suggested total wreckage and devastation. It's hard to remember any defense with that good a reputation getting so consistently faked out by an opponent.

The obliteration of UGA' defense by WVU's offense is noteworthy in the college football business for another, separate reason, too: if WVU's spread running attack, with wide splits and shifty QB-RB-WR combinations, could devastate Willie Martinez' boys, then maybe Urban Meyer's spread option really could work against Georgia and the rest of the SEC. The only problem is that Meyer lacked any of the speed West Virginia has. With White, Slaton, and an offensive line that played with a huge chip on its shoulder all night long in Atlanta, Meyer would have run the table in the SEC this season. But he didn't have the talent, now, did he? Rich Rodriguez--once Adam Bednarik got injured--did have the horses, and the rest is history. Speed-oriented rushing attacks not called the triple option or the wishbone can work in college football, and this game proved it beyond all doubt. That's big news for the entire community of college football coaches.

Another big, industry-changing element of this game is Rich Rodriguez' superior game management. In big games, you must throw new and unexpected elements into the mix, and the Mountaineer mastermind--while getting Georgia way off balance--did something even bigger: he made a fundamental statement that should shake up the stodgy, old-timey, Bear Bryant-y methods and thought patterns of SEC football traditionalists. Rodriguez' fake punt late in the game--which sealed the outcome--was incredibly ballsy in its own right. That level of gutsiness is something other, more conservative football coaches need to take a second look at. But far beyond that one call (what was equally amazing about that play, while we're talking about it, is that Mark Richt had two people back to return the kick instead of guarding against the fake), what was and is much more important about Rodriguez' stellar coaching performance was his use of a no-huddle offense on a consistent basis. In the SEC, no one uses no huddles. No one Down South lines up, butts heads, and races right back to the line of scrimmage. They pride themselves on old-fashioned, head-cracking, pad-knocking football in the SEC, and the built-in assumption is that you rest for the full 30-35 seconds in between plays. Rodriguez, though, brought football into the 21st century, and a Georgia team that clearly expected to employ power football (on both sides of the ball, but especially defense) wound up getting caught out of position and, even more importantly, dominated by the Mountaineers' pure speed. The way Rodriguez manipulated matchups, tempo and style in this game should be noticed by all other colleagues in the coaching profession. In the evolution of football from game-management and play-calling standpoints, Rodriguez just moved the sport ahead several years.

So there you have it: USC-Texas will affect college football history, but this Sugar Bowl will have a much greater effect on the college football industry and its future. Georgia missed its only chance to win the Sugar Bowl in the Athens of the South--as the Superdome is likely to get the game back next season--while West Virginia, of the resurgent and redeemed Big East Conference, is a national title contender next season and a preseason top 10 team.

They will tell the story of the 2005 West Virginia football team for generations in Appalachia, and recount the legendary rise from the ashes that began when one quarterback got injured and a backup began a college football season for the ages. What started in Syracuse and turned around against Louisville found perfect fulfillment in Atlanta.

Rarely has a piece of Sugar been as sweet as it must taste for the state of West Virginia tonight. With one memorable performance from their beloved Mountaineers, West Virginians have seen all of their arguments validated, all of their complaints justified, all of their hopes rewarded. And if this day wasn't satisfying enough for them, there was a bonus for West Virginians: earlier in the day, they saw Marcus Vick (public enemy No. 1 in Morgantown) confirm that he is an ill-mannered punk who disgraces intercollegiate athletics.

Yes, on so many levels, West Virginians told the nation that if their team got its chance in the spotlight, the Big East would cease to be a punching bag throughout the United States. And after seeing Georgia punch at nothing but air for 60 minutes in Atlanta, it's clear that the victorious Mountaineers repaid their loyal supporters in full.

Yes, Virginia, there is a West Virginia, and that state is on the Mountaineer mountaintop of the college football world--not just right now, but for as long as Pat White decides to put the big "WV" helmet on his head.

Amazing what one football game can accomplish for a team, a program, a school, a conference, a state, and the region of Appalachia.

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