SHEPHERDSTOWN — On Jan. 2, 2008, West Virginia royally celebrated a 48-28 Fiesta Bowl win over favored Oklahoma. Only two other January bowl victories achieved by any West Virginia team come close to that new year conquest — the 38-35 win over Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl in Atlanta and the 70-33 blasting of Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
The whirlwind of circumstances that preceded the Fiesta Bowl blotting of Oklahoma makes it the best-of-bowl wins for the Mountaineers.
Coming into the 2011 season, West Virginia was rated by all as a top-10 team. Quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton were juniors and fullback Owen Schmitt was another quality player.
After a loss to South Florida in late September, the Mountaineers survived a small fall in the rankings. They didn’t lose again, and came into early December with a very real chance to play for the national championship.
In Morgantown on the crisp first Saturday night in December, West Virginia faced four-touchdown underdog Pittsburgh.
The Panthers dragged a losing record into Mountaineer Field. It was the 100th game in the Backyard Brawl series.
When the Mountaineers missed two early field goals, the Panthers drew energy for the rest of their task.
White had dislocated his thumb in the first half. Wrinkled brows, muffled oaths and frozen tears led the Mountaineers into their dressing room at halftime.
Pittsburgh would prevail, 13-9, and WVU and its enthusiasm for a possible bowl bid to the Sugar Bowl for a spot in the national championship game had been sent to the murky bottom of the Monongahela River.
On Dec. 16, coach Rich Rodriguez announced he was going to take his coaching skills to Michigan. He would not coach in the Fiesta Bowl — West Virginia’s imagined consolation prize after losing to reviled Pittsburgh.
Bill Stewart was elevated to head coach and told to find the ways to tame third-ranked Oklahoma.
So many West Virginia fans had been certain of a win over Pittsburgh that they purchased nonrefundable travel packages to New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl — meaning the Mountaineers could sell only 10,000 of the allotted 17,500 tickets they had been given. The unsold tickets were returned to the disbelieving Fiesta Bowl.
On Jan. 2, 2008, some 70,016 paid admissions traipsed into the University of Phoenix Stadium to see West Virginia mix it up with the Boomer Sooners from Oklahoma.
West Virginia was missing Rodriguez, but Oklahoma was missing cornerback Reggie Smith, his backup Lendy Holmes (academically ineligible) and defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger (dismissed for shoplifting).
White was back to quarterback the Mountaineers.
Oklahoma was the Big 12 champion, having beaten Missouri in the conference championship game. Only two losses (Colorado and Texas Tech) blemished the Sooner record. Freshman quarterback Sam Bradford had a stellar season.
Las Vegas bookmakers had pegged Oklahoma as an 8.5 point favorite.
After Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons sang the National Anthem, West Virginia had a strong start with two successful field goals in the first quarter and a touchdown just before the half closed to take 20-6 lead. It was done without Slaton, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury, never to return.
Freshman Noel Devine replaced Slaton and ran for over 100 yards and two scores. The Mountaineers would roll up over 350 rushing yards and White would throw for over 200 more. The WVU lead was improved to 34-15 after three periods and was completed at 48-28.
Stewart received a five-year contract somewhere around 4 a.m. in the fast-arriving morning. White was the Offensive MVP and Reed Williams was the Defensive MVP.
Somewhat unexpected, the dismantling of Oklahoma was widely celebrated, as was the last of the moving vans that escorted Rodriguez and family to Ann Arbor, Michigan.