WVU football: Out of BCS, Mountaineers settle for Champs Sports Bowl
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Given where things were just five weeks earlier, West Virginia Coach Bill Stewart won't concern himself with what might have been.
The Mountaineers accepted an invitation Sunday to play in the Champs Sports Bowl, in Orlando Fla., not 24 hours after UConn beat South Florida to claim the Big East's place in the Bowl Championship Series. In last place in the Big East on Oct. 30, WVU won its final four games and shared the conference title with the Huskies and Pitt.
"I see no disappointment whatsoever," Stewart said. "I see some calls from my players already, so I know they're excited. We are Big East champs. I'm very proud of our record and very proud of the resolve our seniors and this football team showed these last four games.
"Being 1-2 (in the Big East) at one time and coming out and playing like we have the last month is a real tribute to the young men in our program."
The 22nd-ranked Mountaineers will play North Carolina State on Dec. 28, the No. 3 pick from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The bowl offers a $2 million payout and caps a lucrative weekend for Stewart. He'll bank $125,000 in contract bonuses for winning nine regular season games ($25,000), earning a share of the conference championship ($75,000) and getting to a non-BCS bowl ($25,000).
The game will be played at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN at the Citrus Bowl. The 74-year-old stadium is in the early stages of a $175 million renovation project. The natural grass surface has been replaced by AstroTurf Gameday Grass 3D.
Players in two bowls at the stadium last winter complained about the grass before and after their games.
Miami running back Graig Cooper tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last year when he went down untouched on a kickoff return in the Champs Sports Bowl against Wisconsin.
Penn State and LSU players were concerned a week later before they played in the Capital One Bowl on the same field.
"We should have what is widely considered one of the best fields in the country," said Steve Hogan, who is the CEO of Florida Citrus Sports, which conducts the Champs Sports Bowl.
The Wolfpack (8-4, 5-3 ACC) missed out on the BCS, too. A win in their regular-season finale against Maryland would have pushed them into the ACC title game against Virginia Tech, but the Terrapins wiped out a 14-0 deficit and won 38-31.
N.C. State played two WVU opponents. Cincinnati lost in Raleigh, N.C., 30-19. WVU defeated Maryland 31-14 and Cincinnati 37-10.
Florida Citrus Sports could have gone in other directions. Maryland (8-4, 5-3) was an option, but Hogan said the group is "not big fans of putting together rematches from the regular season." Notre Dame was a possibility for the Big East's slot. The Fighting Irish can take the conference's spot once in the four-year cycle that begins this year.
"We felt like a ranked, top 25 West Virginia team that's 9-3 deserved to be here," Hogan said. "We told everyone at Notre Dame we're proud of the season they had, especially the November they had beating Utah, Army and finishing up with a win at Southern Cal. But 7-5 versus a 9-3, ranked team, we felt West Virginia deserved to be here. We believed it was in the best interest of college football and everyone involved."
The Mountaineers (9-3, 5-2 Big East) and N.C. State have played one another nine times, but not since 1979. WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck played quarterback in that game, a 39-13 loss at the old Mountaineer Field, and was 12-for-26 for 127 yards and a rushing touchdown.
WVU leads the series, 5-4. This will be the third bowl matchup between the two schools. The Mountaineers won the 1975 Peach Bowl, 13-10, but lost the 1972 Peach Bowl, 49-13.
N.C. State is coached by former Boston College Coach Tom O'Brien, who is 4-4 against WVU and 6-2 in bowl games, and are led by quarterback Russell Wilson. A 5-foot-11, 200-pound redshirt junior from Richmond, Va., Wilson is No. 11 nationally in total offense (306.83 yards per game). He's completed 280-of-482 passes for 3,288 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He's also run for 394 yards and nine touchdowns.
He has eight 300-yard games and eight multi-touchdown games, but has also thrown an interception in each of the past seven games. He was second-team all-ACC.
Wilson is also a talented baseball player. He plays for the Wolfpack's team and was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the fourth round in June. Wilson signed a five-year contract with a reported signing bonus worth $200,000.
He was actually recruited to N.C. State by WVU safeties coach Steve Dunlap, who was the Wolfpack's defensive coordinator in 2005-06. Stewart got a brief glimpse of Wilson on film against Cincinnati when the Mountaineers were preparing for the Bearcats
"We know what he can do," Stewart said. "We know what record he has. His stats are phenomenal. He's very much a top-flight, efficient passer."
The N.C. State passing offense leads the ACC and ranks No. 19 nationally (281.67 yards per game) and helps the scoring offense (32.58 points per game) rank No. 2 in the conference and No. 29 in the country.
Tight end George Bryan was first-team all-conference with 32 catches for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Owen Spencer, a 6-3 senior, was second-team all-conference and led the team with 57 receptions for 868 yards and four touchdowns. Spencer set the ACC record as a sophomore and a junior for yards per catch.
The Wolfpack defense is No. 2 in the ACC and No. 12 nationally against the run (113 yards per game) and is No. 4 in the country and No. 2 in the ACC in sacks (3.25 per game). Linebacker Nate Irving was first-team all-conference. He leads the team with six sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss and made 88 tackles.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.