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Fiesta Redux: West Virginia, Uplifted

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Taking a quick glance at next year's depth charts, a few young teams really stand out as mythical championship frontrunners in 2008 - Florida, Georgia, Southern Cal - but none prior to Wednesday night looked better stocked next year relative to its mostly great performance this year than Oklahoma. OU blog Crimson and Cream Machine called West Virginia's unmolested romp through the Oklahoma secondary - yes, that really was four Mountaineer touchdowns in seven snaps at the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters - "The Night the Sooners Died," and this is only hyperbole in the sense that Oklahoma should still be an outstanding program first-rate talent going forward. But as far as entering the offseason with a sort of "championship mandate" for next fall, and maintaining a reputation for sweltering defense and winning games at which they arrive with focus - the Miamis, Texases and Missouris, to use this year's high profile victims - the Sooners are suddenly rebuilding. Bob Stoops' teams have dominated the Big 12 but now also have lost four straight BCS games over five years, arguably (depending on your opinion of Boise State) performing terribly in all of them. They looked painfully slow on the offensive line and at every position on defense against the very non-blue chip Mountaineers, only one sign - repeated busted assignments, missed tackles and blown angles in the open field serving as the others - that a supposedly broken, exhausted team off a crippling loss to end the season, led by a mild-mannered, Coker-ish interim coach no one outside the state had ever heard of, was the vastly better prepared team.

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Under the circumstances, the Mountaineers' emotion was more impressive than its outstanding offensive execution, which was plenty impressive on its on, especially operating without Steve Slaton, as it has to a greater and greater extent as Pat White has become the focal point of the running game. Passion is an overrated factor in the outcome of sports, because it so rarely lasts past the first few hits and can be manufactured fairly easily in dramatic moments, but West Virginia put on one long, sustained, tear-filled party for its state Wednesday, a showcase for a team and a place coming together when the outside world looked at one disastrous December and left them for dead. There was no reason to believe in West Virginia after its grand architect left, after its inevtiable ascension to the mythical championship game went up in smoke against a lousy rival. Poor Tito Gonzalez was so overwhelmed after his 79-yard touchdown catch at the start of the fourth quarter that he looked like he was in the most intense state of joyous agony for the next ten minutes. After the game, huge, bleeding, scarred, mohawked bulldozer Owen Schmitt couldn't take the joy of the collective overachievement. Bill Stewart - the Mountaineers' new head coach this morning in the afterglow - was adamant about giving the win to the fans who'd felt so jilted by his former boss. How did the same offense that couldn't get into field goal range even with White and Slaton against Pittsburgh run circles around Oklahoma? By all rights, the team should have been flat, uncertain and physically pushed around by the bigger outfit, and it was the exact opposite on every count.

So the arrows dramatically flipped - talented Oklahoma, the team that can beat anybody, must answer for its consistent season-ending failures, inconsistency against mediocre opponents on the road and defensive failure against wide open offenses. West Virginia, the homely product of an innovative football mind and suspect schedule, returns its three all-world playmakers in the backfield and all five offensive linemen, demonstrated extreme competence in the passing game, in pressuring Sam Bradford into ineptitude and in thwarting OU's power running game, and did it under the brightest lights, against one of the toughest offensive lines and secondaries it could have faced anywhere. We knew this before, and it's still true with or without Rich Rodriguez: as long as Pat White is on the field, West Virginia can beat anyone.

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One note re: Stewart: the man Stewart reminded me of most Wednesday was Larry Coker, another aging, affable career assistant who took great players to great heights but couldn't sustain the momentum of his predecessor and let his program careen off the tracks. Stewart had the same sort of popular, caretaker vibe about him, a lot of "rah rah" and little intensity. I don't know him, and maybe this assessment is way, way off. But young players will always vouch for their coach, whoever he is, and especially in the kind of emotional, unifying environment as WVU created at the Fiesta Bowl. It's all very storybook, very feel-good, the good guy, the true, loyal heart gets carried off the field, tries to give each fan a little fleck of diamond from the trophy and then gets the job. Storybook emotion, however, is not the best environment to make a long term, calculating decision. The men who make the biggest bucks for winning the biggest games, with the exception of Pete Carroll, come across as single-minded bastards. Rich Rodriguez certainly fit this mold. Bill Stewart definitely does not; he's grandfatherly. He'll have one season to go with White and Slaton and then at least one (probably two) with Devine. We'll see eventually if this was a heartwarming rush to judgment.