Orange Bowl: WVU defense recovered late in season
HARBOR BEACH, Fla. -- Even though there is a long list to choose from, the players on the West Virginia defense that impacted the three-game winning streak at the end of the regular season need no time to pick out the one play that mattered most.
The 23rd-ranked Mountaineers (9-3) agree that they're not here, preparing for the Jan. 4 Orange Bowl against No. 14 Clemson (10-3), without Julian Miller's fumble recovery touchdown against Cincinnati.
"There were key moments the last three games that changed the game and I think that shows what type of character we have throughout the year on defense and that coming down the stretch we're a team with resiliency and a team that finds a ay to win," the senior defensive lineman said.
"But that play definitely was a momentum swing. We were away - we weren't at home - and at that time, that was the best team in the Big East. We needed to win that one to at least put us in position to get to where we are now."
The defense is so proud of that moment that there is competition for the accolades. Technically, defensive end Bruce Irvin was credited with a sack that forced the fumble Miller recovered in the end zone for a 17-7 lead in the second quarter.
Linebacker Najee Goode remains bitter he was not given credit for the sack and the forced fumble in the box score.
"I got it," Goode said. "He says he got it, but I got it."
"I got that sack," Irvin said. "He's not getting that sack."
The sack turned out to be about more than a play or a game. It had a lasting impact. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros broke his leg on the play and was replaced by unproven Munchie Legaux, who struggled against the Mountaineers. Cincinnati eventually fell out of first place in the conference, but did push WVU into the BCS by beating Connecticut in the final game of the regular season.
The score, something Miller predicted he would do in the preseason, also triggered a sideline-clearing celebration that somehow wasn't penalized. All week Coach Dana Holgorsen spoke about needing more energy on the sideline and more enthusiasm from the team. What carried the Mountaineers the rest of the way was born on that play.
Irvin doesn't like to talk about the play, except when he's made to take credit for the sack, because he felt terrible about the injury to Collaros. He still understands how important it was for WVU.
"What happened to Collaros is unfortunate. It's part of the game and I talked to him afterward and he understands where I was coming from, just playing the game, but that brought in Munchie Legaux, who had never played and (defensive coordinator Jeff) Casteel started dialing up blitzes," Irvin said.
"That was a big turning point for both teams. We got after him them after that sack and that touchdown. It was really not only a game-changing moment, but a season-changing moment."
Safety Eain Smith ended up blocking a field goal on the final play of regulation that preserved WVU's 24-21 victory. In the next game, a 20-14 win against Pitt, the defense shut the Panthers down after they took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The Mountaineers had 10 sacks - nine in the final 25 plays and four on what could have been Pitt's game-winning drive.
In the final game of the regular season, Goode stripped the ball from the hands of South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels and linebacker Doug Rigg recovered to give the offense the ball before it won the game, 30-27, on Tyler Bitancurt's field goal
"As a team, the way we finished the season and going though the adversity winning games by one play, we developed as a team that can handle adversity and deal with it," Goode said. "I'm 100-percent confidence we can go out there and do that against a team like Clemson that can make plays. I know our defense can go out and make plays, too
"Making that play and scoring that touchdown against Cincinnati turned our whole team around - not just the defense, but the entire team - and made our team able to play with more confidence."
It's apparent on the other side of the field. Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd has watched all of WVU's games on film. One team generally focuses on the opponent's most recent games, though, and it is there where Boyd became impressed.
"I felt like as each game went on, they grew with confidence," the first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference pick said.
Clemson figured things out at the end of the season, too. The Tigers started 8-0 and then lost 3 of 4 before throttling Virginia Tech in the ACC's championship game. Since then, Boyd was honored by the league's coaches, receiver Sammy Watkins and tight end Dwayne Allen were voted first-team All-America and Allen won the award for the nation's best tight end.
The revitalized Mountaineers aren't fazed.
"Tajh has played pretty good -- he's played excellent actually -- but he's still a young guy to us," Goode said. "He's a redshirt sophomore and he hasn't played against our defense. And I don't know the last time Clemson has been to the BCS. They've been in some big games before and the ACC championship game is a big game for them, but we've got a chance to come out and fluster him a little bit."
Boyd, Watkins and Allen all said WVU's 3-3-5 is new to them and there was some bewilderment when they first saw it, but that they have since grown more comfortable with the unusual alignment.
The Mountaineers thrive on that confusion and have traditionally fared very well against quarterbacks playing for the first time against the 3-3-5.
"We have different ways to bring pressure, different ways to attack, different ways to line up," Goode said. "We've got the five defensive backs and there's a lot of things we can do - corner blitzes, safety blitzes - in addition to the linebacker blitzes and the defensive line stunts.
"Coach Casteel says it looks like spaghetti to the offense because we have guys ripping and running everywhere. I'm confident we're going to do that and as long as we're effective and execute and keep the mistakes to a few, we should be able to do a few things."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.