South Florida allowed the Mountaineers three field goals on three red-zone possessions and stopped 12 of 14 third downs.
WVU's offense had one touchdown and rallied around an interception and a kickoff return touchdown.
"That's football," quarterback Geno Smith said.
"You can't blow every team out, no matter what. Everyone practices."
Rutgers (No. 12-ranked defense), Louisville (23), Cincinnati (42), Pitt (35) and South Florida (39) had formidable defenses and running back Shawne Alston said many overlook how good they were at keeping WVU from what it prefers to do.
"We couldn't keep drives alive like we needed to," he said. "We had a couple three-and-outs and times we'd have two downs and get to third down where we hadn't even gained a yard."
The Mountaineers were No. 61 nationally in third-down conversions last season (40.56 percent). In the four games late in the schedule, they went 17-for-56 (30.56 percent) and Holgorsen had to change the way he called plays to set up easier third downs.
Take that away and WVU finds itself ranked No. 28 (45.16) and between Baylor and Oregon.
The bowl game arrived and WVU was back to what it once was, converting 10 of 16 third downs while averaging 6.6 yards per play and scoring touchdowns on all seven red-zone possessions.
"We played the game, we scored 70 points, we did a great job, but we didn't look back at the season and say, 'We did this, so let's do this different,'" Smith said. "We didn't change anything about our game. We did the same things."
Despite the points, the offense wasn't especially explosive. The game got away from Clemson with turnovers at the end of the first half that gave the Mountaineers a short field. WVU's offense had one 20-yard run, the longest pass was 37 yards and that short toss to Tavon Austin was the longest scoring play.
Yet the Mountaineers were consistent and effective and the average touchdown drive needed a tidy seven plays and 60 yards.
"That was a perfect example of what to do," Bailey said. "We always want to gain positive yards. As long as we do that instead of worrying about the big plays, everything falls into place and we take it straight down the field."
The obvious concern in the preseason is how WVU reacts because they say they tried too hard to be good last season. They talk now about not being so easily corrupted and believe the Orange Bowl should actually reinforce their modest offensive aim.
"Coach Holgorsen touches on that a lot - keep moving the ball a little at a time and get first downs," Alston said. "You keep pounding it and picking up first downs and eventually the big plays are going to come."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mi...@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.