Mountaineer Moments in Adversity Part Seven
In the last iteration of our Mountaineer Moments in Adversity series, we visited West Virginia’s 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson. In the process, we talked about how Bill Stewart‘s short tenure as WVU’s head coach came to an end. Now, we talk about how it began. Indeed, in part seven of our Mountaineer Moments in Adversity series, we look at West Virginia’s “surprise” win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
WVU Begins the Season as a Favorite
For Mountaineer fans, the 2007 season represents a tough transition between its best era of football and the slow descent into the middle tier of college football. Perhaps more than any season, we could aptly name the 2007 season “The Face of Adversity” in a book chronicling West Virginia football history.
Things started much differently than they ended, however. West Virginia entered the season firmly in the conversation for potential national champions. With the third-ranked team in the AP preseason poll, the biggest challenge would be meeting those expectations. Against Mountaineer history, of course, this represented an unusual position. The Mountaineers even entered the season with two legitimate Heisman contenders in Pat White and Steve Slaton.
After an unexpected loss to South Florida in the middle of the season, however, West Virginia fell to 13th in the next AP poll. They still had a path to a national championship, but the stutter-step narrowed the opening. Fortunately, 2007 represented one of the most chaotic seasons in recent history. Top-five teams faced upset after upset. By winning their next six games and watching others falter, West Virginia climbed up to number two in the AP poll leading into the final week of the regular season.
Adversity Piles On
That was three months prior a distant dream now looked to be a certain reality. All that stood in the way was a 4-7 Pitt team that seemingly had no chance to stop the mighty Mountaineer offense in Morgantown.
Fate, however, had other plans. Pitt left Morgantown with a 13-9 win, and the Mountaineers’ hopes of playing for a National Championship crumbled. Days later, Head Coach Rich Rodriguez announced that he was leaving Morgantown to take the head coaching job in Michigan, just a year after turning down the opportunity to be the head man in Tuscaloosa and declaring his unceasing loyalty to West Virginia.
Within days, then, Mountaineer fans lost their best chance at a National Championship team since 1993 and they lost their head coach which made that seem a real possibility for three straight seasons. Simply, adversity may not be a strong enough word.
Interim Coach Named
Athletic Director Ed Pastilong quickly named Stewart as the interim Head Coach. Stewart faced a daunting task. He had to rally a badly wounded team to once again prove the nation wrong. After their recent losses, nobody expected West Virginia to beat Oklahoma in the looming Fiesta Bowl.
Indeed, after the loss, the Mountaineers fell to 11th in the nation and faced Oklahoma, the third-ranked team. Stewart delivered a short pre-game speech, but it is one that Mountaineer fans (and college football fans) will not soon forget. It all led to this conclusion: “It’s Mountaineer Pride. Nothing cheap. From the heart. Let ’em know. Leave no doubt tonight. Leave no doubt tonight. No doubt. They shouldn’t have played the Old Gold and Blue. Not this night.”
Stewart implored his team to start fast, and they responded. Indeed, they held a 20-6 lead heading into halftime led by a 57-yard run by Owen Schmitt and a touchdown pass from White to Darius Reynaud. Walking highlight-reel Noel Devine added 108 yards on just 18 carries and two touchdowns. The Mountaineers did exactly what their coach asked. They left no doubt. They left Glendale with a 48-28 win.
It may not have been a National Championship, but it was a statement about the West Virginia culture. They played with heart despite all that they lost. Indeed, as we look at Mountaineer Moments in Adversity, we cannot find a more potent expression of the “Heart of the Mountaineer” than this game.