WVU defense didn't break records, it broke game open
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - West Virginia's offense slew a slew of records in Wednesday's Orange Bowl. It was the defense that likely won the game with a play in the second quarter that irreparably altered the momentum.
Mountaineers linebacker Doug Rigg forced a fumble on the goal line to prevent a touchdown and safety Darwin Cook recovered and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown. Rather than allow Clemson's Andre Ellington to run in for a 3-yard touchdown and a potential 24-21 lead, Cook's return put WVU ahead 28-17 on the way to a 70-33 victory.
"That was huge," a dejected Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. "I mean that was a big, big play."
Fittingly enough, Cook's caper was as stealthy as the defense swinging the game on a night that will be remembered for the Mountaineers scoring more points than anyone else ever had in any bowl before then.
"I just tried to sneak out of there so people wouldn't think I had the ball at first," said Cook, a sophomore from Cleveland. "Then I took off."
Cook was behind the play and saw the ball rattling around. He knew Ellington was in a pile and assumed he was not yet down. Cook reached in and stole the ball and did indeed tiptoe the other way before speeding up as others took notice.
"He was probably the only one in the stadium who knew the ball came out," defensive end Bruce Irvin said. "That was a great, heads-up play by him. God knows we needed seven points then. That was so big."
After trading punts to start, the teams each scored touchdowns on successive drives before WVU forced a field goal and then scored a third touchdown.
Clemson kept the seesaw swaying and was again at WVU's goal line when Rigg and Cook combined to unplug Clemson.
"As a defense, we studied Clemson very well the past month and I think we did a good job preparing for them," said safety Eain Smith, who had a game-high 12 tackles. "What we saw on film was when Clemson gets down, they have no fight left in them. That's exactly what we saw (Wednesday).
"I saw it when Cook took that fumble back. I saw their body language go way down immediately. I looked at their faces and I looked at the sideline and I saw their body language and I knew they didn't want to play the game."
The Tigers added a second field goal, but WVU then scored touchdowns on five straight drives. The offense moved the ball, but the defense kept getting it back. The Mountaineers intercepted Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd on one possession late in the second quarter before the offense scored a touchdown and then forced a fumble on Clemson's next play and to set up a second touchdown for a 49-20 lead at halftime.
It was a continuation of WVU's surge late in the season, when defenders scored touchdowns, blocked field goals, harassed the quarterback, caused turnovers to affect the outcomes of games in three consecutive wins to end the regular season.
"They made plays that helped change the game and that's a credit to those guys," defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "They continued to get better the last four or five weeks and made some plays to help themselves win 10 games and a BCS (bowl game) championship. That's hard to do."
The team that said it saw Clemson shrink on film saw other things to take advantage of, too. Cornerback Keith Tandy said before WVU left campus for here that Clemson's receivers tipped off their routes and Boyd would force passes when he was frustrated.
On the first turnover late in the second quarter, WVU cornerback Pat Miller identified the play, stepped in front of receiver Sammy Watkins and intercepted Boyd.
"He definitely tried to force balls in there," Tandy said after Wednesday's win. "One game, Wake Forest had, like, seven dropped interceptions. We knew he'd give us a chance. We just had to make those plays."
Other players thought Boyd exposed the ball when he ran, either on a designed play or to escape pressure. They were instructed to strike at the ball. On the second turnover late in the first half, Boyd left the pocket by running right, but was caught by defensive end Bruce Irvin, who sprinted from the 2-yard line on the left side of the field to catch Boyd at the 20 on the right side. He ripped the ball free and WVU's offense scored again with four seconds left in the first half
"It was a last-second thing," Irvin said. "I was just about to tackle him at first, but I saw Casteel in my head and I went for the ball."
The Mountaineers forced four turnovers that led to 21 points. After giving up 160 yards on the first three drives - including a three-and-out on the first drive that netted two yards - WVU's defense gave up just 283 yards in the final 13 drives and had the four turnovers and four three-and-outs.
At the end, Casteel's players poured a cooler of Gatorade over him - "They almost gave me a heart attack," he said, just as they did after the Fiesta Bowl in 2008 when no one was too sure if he'd stay with the Mountaineers or go to the University of Michigan with Rich Rodriguez.
There is similar uncertainty now and Casteel won't say if he's staying with the Mountaineers or joining Rodriguez at the University of Arizona.
"Missing six, seven, eight kids from last year's team and winning 10 games and winning a BCS game is a pretty special feeling," Casteel said. "I'd rather put the emphasis on that right now than some of the other things you guys want to put the emphasis on."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.